We need more renewable energy and a new pricing system

The jolting rise in the price of energy should help focus minds on the urgent need to speed up the transition to renewable energy sources. We need to make that switch to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it would be good if it also helped reduce and stabilise energy prices. 

That’s not guaranteed under the current pricing system for electricity, where the price we pay is mostly set by the market price of fossil fuels, even though these only generate around 40% of the energy we use each year. Renewables are now the cheapest source of energy and supply more than 40% of the UK’s annual electricity consumption. But some gas generation is needed most of the time. So electricity prices are still tied to oil and gas prices. That’s why they are currently so high, and set to rise further.

It looks like we need more renewable generation and a new pricing system, especially as electricity consumption is set to rise significantly as we seek to decarbonise our heating and transport. The government’s target is for the electricity supply to be net zero by 2035. This can only be achieved by a major increase in renewables and nuclear power, along with a big reduction in the energy we use. We need to cut out unnecessary consumption and retrofit our housing stock.

Onshore wind turbines and large solar farms are the cheapest ways of creating energy, green or otherwise. Wind has the advantage, though, of using far less land than solar and is more efficient. It also has the lowest ‘embodied energy’ per unit of energy generated– the energy required during manufacture– of any form of energy production.

The first wind farm in the UK was opened at Delabole in Cornwall in 1991. Between 2009 and 2020 wind energy in the UK grew by 715%, but most of that generation is onshore in Scotland and offshore, mainly along the east coast of England. Onshore wind was effectively blocked in 2015 when the government banned public subsidies for onshore wind farms. The ban was dropped in 2020, but there are still tough planning requirements. 

The history of wind energy means existing sources are a long way from Teignbridge, involving electricity transmission losses. You may have noticed it can be pretty windy in Devon. Indeed, the South West is second only to western Scotland as the most exposed part of the UK. We should make the most of our natural advantages! 

Teignbridge District Council agrees and recently consulted on potential sites for wind turbines in the district. Action on Climate in Teignbridge put in a response to the consultation supporting the creation of onshore wind sites, provided they minimise adverse effects on the environment. Badly designed wind farms can damage bird and bat populations in particular. 

They can also be unpopular with residents. That’s partly why there was an effective ban for several years – wind turbines were regarded by some as a blight on the landscape, and noisy as well. On the noise front, wind turbines are now remarkably quiet. For planning purposes, noise from turbines must be shown not to add to the constant background noise levels for no further work to be required. 

There is not much to be done about the visual impact of most wind turbines. Like electricity pylons, roads and housing developments, they are man made structures in the natural environment.

It seems we are more likely to accept new structures that are familiar to us, like roads and housing. This is despite them having a greater detrimental impact than wind turbines both visually and ecologically, not to mention their high greenhouse gas emissions. Roads and housing are also more likely to persist for a lot longer than wind turbines, if eventually we are able to generate our energy from other low carbon technologies. We could also limit wind turbine deployment if we become more careful about how much energy we consume and distribute energy better.

But even if we build wind farms wherever we can in Devon, taking into account factors such as whether there is enough wind, the proximity to the grid and protected nature areas, less than 2% of the county’s total land area would be occupied by wind turbines. That compares to 5% of land in Teignbridge that has been built on. That doesn’t sound too bad for a technology that will help meet our carbon emission reduction targets and potentially be a source of cheap energy.

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