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Blow, blow, thou swift wind

We need to make all the hot air work for us.

Given that it’s party conference season, it seems appropriate to talk about hot air. It turns out that there’s plenty to go round. Thanks to the sun’s heating effects on the atmosphere, the circulation of air is an enormous energy resource.

According to a study published on 9 September, there is enough wind energy available to meet our current energy needs 20 times over. The last line of the paper, published in Nature Climate Change, declares that “the future of wind energy will be determined by economic, political and technical constraints, rather than global geophysical limits”.

Clearly, we are already jumping the technical hurdles. The UK’s wind energy infrastructure, for instance, is reaching critical mass. Just before 10am on the morning of Friday 14 September, British windfarms achieved a new record high in their power output, supplying just under 11 per cent of the electricity in the National Grid, enough to heat and light more than three million British homes. The difficult bit now will be to keep going and to make sure Britain secures its share of the profits of this booming industry – which brings us to the economic constraints.

On 19 September, the new Ormonde offshore windfarm was opened, ten kilometres out into the Irish Sea from Barrowin- Furness. The Swedish owner, Vattenfall, took the opportunity to criticise the lack of incentives for companies to manufacture wind turbines in Britain.

The UK is committed to expanding our wind power capacity but it seems a precarious pledge, with the money and jobs flowing out of the country. These are not small figures, either. There are thousands of jobs at stake and the Ormonde windfarm cost £500m to create.

Across the Atlantic, some are predicting a recession for the wind     power industry because of similar lack of commitment. US turbine manufacturers have had a high old time, receiving $14bn in investment last year and creating 75,000 jobs. But a stimulus known as the production tax credit has been vital and it is due to expire at the end of the year. Mitt Romney has stated that, if elected, he will make sure the credit disappears.

A recent study released by the Natural Resources Defence Council shows how short-sighted this would be. Windfarms are an economic asset that can regenerate communities. A decade of community-owned wind-farming in Sherman County, Oregon, has stimulated a 300 per cent increase in per capita income. A fifth of the farms’ revenue is injected into the school system, making it one of the few counties where education funding is not being cut. That’s not to mention the $10m tax revenue going to the government.

Air raiser

There are similar communityowned wind power schemes in the UK, where, thanks to currents that drive huge masses of air west from the Canadian Arctic, we have more than our fair share of wind.

Scotland has the highest average wind speeds in Europe, which is why Alex Salmond plans to do everything he can to harness this energy as part of Scotland’s effort to generate all its electricity from renewable sources.

So now we have arrived at the political hurdle. Salmond has already had a fight with George Osborne over subsidies and he will continue to face barmy opposition, such as Donald Trump’s shameful sponsoring of billboard posters depicting broken, rusting turbines under the line “Welcome to Scotland”.

The Advertising Standards Authority has just smacked Trump down for the stunt (the picture was taken in Hawaii). One hopes that Westminster will show similar common sense and make every effort to ensure all that hot air works for us.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special