Richard North, 10/10/2012  
 

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Wind farms were well in the news yesterday, with Owen Paterson standing up in front of the adoring masses in Birmingham to tell them that "Soviet style" green subsidies must be scrapped because "turbines are blighting local communities".

This brought a "Soviet style" comment to a piece published by the loss-making Guardian, rather indelicately declaring that the environment secretary is "a complete twat".

We are then told that, "People working in DEFRA are embarrassed to have such a complete tool as, effectively, their boss", only to be reassured that: "civil servants have a way of ensuring destructive ministers are never quite as effective as their rhetoric? They have in the past... ".

That is largely the truth of it, where even in a well-oiled system, it is difficult for a mere minister to turn the great machine of state. Supertankers are a doddle by comparison. And then, we have some complaints that top civil servants go so far as to "veto government policies" and they even fail fully to implement them.

Recoiling from the shock of all this, one sees in Mr Paterson's crusade a greater problem, for energy is not even his departmental responsibility. That belongs to Ed Davey, a thoroughly odious Liberal-Democrat over at DECC. He is totally committed to the cause of despoiling the countryside, and will not let a mere thing like an environment secretary get in his way.

For the civil servants, this is good news. There is nothing better they like than to have departmental ministers battling each other. It conveniently absorbs their energies and takes prying eyes away from other policy issues, where detailed scrutiny is less than welcome. Ministers only have so much time, and if they are focused on an ongoing battle, they have less time for other matters.

One also has to observe that Paterson is only permitted to express concern about onshore windfarms. Maintaining the even more expensive offshore turbines – which require twice as much subsidy - is core Conservative Party policy, and therefore untouchable.

The irony here is that it is not only the onshore wind which is blighting rural communities. Being as wind farms tend to be in remote spots – and more so offshore farms – for every turbine, there are dozens more highly intrusive electricity pylons marching across the countryside, costing at least £8.8 billion over the next eight years alone.

This points to an even greater failing of our electricity supply industry, that of the abuse of the transmission system and the national grid.

The greatest failing lies with the presumption that electricity can be parcelled up and sent over great distances as high-voltage packages, without penalty. It cannot. The cost of the infrastructure is huge, its presence is intrusive and the energy losses are massive. Depending on who you consult, as much as ten percent of the electricity produced - variable with distance – nearly as much energy as is produced by our entire nuclear estate and twice as much as our current total wind capacity can deliver.

For this reason, low-voltage electricity should be produced as close to the point of use as possible – as always used to be the case, witness this pre-war photograph of Lots Road power station, on the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, with the Fulham Power station in the background (below).

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At one time or another, from Tilbury to Kingston, there have been eighteen power stations on the banks of the Thames serving London. It was always (and still is) better economics and husbandry to bring the fuel by barge to the point of use than generate centrally and pipe the power down the grid.

Part of the rot came with nuclear, and also with the mega-coal stations of Yorkshire, such as Drax, where it was thought the law of physics could be suspended. Instead of using the grid as a balancing mechanism, and as a longstop to insure against local failure, progressively since the war, it has been used as part of the core supply system - something for which it was never designed.

One answer to our current problems would be thus to revolt against gargantuanism, which has been a particularly serious disease since the sixties (remember the Walker local government reforms). And that applies as much to nuclear as it does wind farms. Rather than 1GW-plus giant nukes in the boondocks, we could and should have mini-nukes in every industrial estate. 

 

For those horror-struck by the idea, a quick visit to Derby is called-for, to the Rolls Royce plant, where there has been a mini-nuke operating for decades, and where they are successfully manufactured - a major British industry that is largely ignored. 

Those who bemoan the selling-off of Westinghouse forget that we still do have a domestic nuclear power industry. After the concept has been developed, factory-built, units could be up and running with a lead of two years if there was the political will to expand the operation and invest in the technology.

Simply tilting at (landborne) windmills, therefore, is not exactly a winning strategy. It plays well to those adoring masses, of course, so it is a ritual that has to be suffered, but the real answers will not be found in a conference hall in Birmingham.






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