In the first of a series of articles exploring Cornwall’s relationship with renewable installations, Community Energy Plus outlines the need for harnessing sustainable forms of energy on a global to local scale.
Differences of opinion regarding Cornwall’s commitment to renewable energy and the visibility of wind turbines and solar arrays in the county have been rumbling away for some time. Despite studies which show that the overwhelming majority of people nationally support renewable power generation (Cardiff University recently found this was the case for solar – 85% and wind -75% based on 2,441 people surveyed) there is a small but vocal section of public opinion adamantly oppose to what has been described as ‘the march of renewable energy’ across Cornwall. Such groups argue that the perceived proliferation of installations is ruining, even ‘industrialising’ the Cornish landscape and disrupting wildlife, while endangering house prices and tourism revenue. Pro-renewable organisations assert the overwhelming need for renewables in the context of today’s energy and climate crisis and robustly dispute the visual and environmental impacts, while highlighting a total lack of evidence of damage to the housing market and tourist numbers.
The debate stepped up a gear last month, with rival marches in Cornwall’s capital city hoping to galvanise support on both sides. Previously reticent pro-renewable campaigners have been given new impetus in the face of misinformation from opposition groups and, in some cases the media, about the effectiveness of renewable technologies and the connection to rising household bills in the form of green levies.
At Community Energy Plus, this watershed moment represents an opportunity to take stock and to re-frame the issues in today’s context. We argue that there is an escalating crisis in the energy market, and that Cornwall is uniquely positioned to weather the storm, creating jobs and security along the way. As the impact of climate disruption on our day to day lives becomes an ever-present reality, the ambition of a sustainable future for Cornwall can no longer be misconstrued as a ‘deluded green ambition’ but must be seen as imperative if we would like our children to enjoy a semblance of the lifestyle we value so highly.
Climate Change – From Global to Local
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report AR5 (published 27th September 2013) stated that climate change is a reality, and that human activity is almost certainly the cause. Burning fossil fuels is causing global temperatures and sea levels to rise, disrupting weather patterns all over the world. The consequences for Cornwall will be colder winters and warmer, wetter summers, threats to our coastal communities from rising sea levels and more extreme weather events – particularly flooding as a result of storm surges.
The impacts could be devastating. Cornwall is a peninsula which relies on transport links to prevent geographical, social and financial isolation. This applies to travel in and out of the county by residents and tourists, as well as routes to market for our goods. Cornwall currently relies on a train line which is under threat from rising sea levels at Dawlish, and a motorway which crosses a flood plan before it reaches Bristol. Climate change threatens both road and rail infrastructure, which could have major consequences for Cornwall in our own lifetimes.
These kinds of issues are being confronted by communities all over the world. Maximising use of our renewable resources in order to reduce the levels of carbon we release into the atmosphere is the logical response on a global scale, and one that we cannot abdicate at local level.
Unstable Markets, Unprecedented Demand
Along with the enormous damage to the environment caused by burning fossil fuels, we are also facing the reality of diminishing supplies and increasing demand leading to fluctuating prices. This autumn has already bought crippling price rises, which threaten to effectively price vulnerable people out of the energy market entirely. The broken energy industry dominated by ‘the big six’, is undermining our notions of social justice, and politicians appear disempowered to act.
Even middle income families are struggling to afford their fuel bills and having to find savings elsewhere. Meanwhile for some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, winter is already a life and death struggle. People with chronic, long-term conditions find their ill-health exacerbated, and families with young children experience a decline in wellbeing and even educational attainment due to inadequately heated homes. In the most extreme cases cold, damp homes lead to excess winter deaths amongst the elderly, infirm and most vulnerable.
In Cornwall, the nature of the housing stock leaves householders particularly at risk to rising energy costs. Around 50% of homes are off the mains gas network and reliant on expensive forms of fuel such as oil and LPG. Many houses are older, solid walled properties and therefore not suitable for cavity wall insulation. Problems with damp, drafts and mould abound. Cornwall has an ageing population – even more so than the rest of the UK – which exacerbates the health implications of cold winters and the subsequent strain on services. Rural isolation also leaves the elderly particularly vulnerable.
Whilst increasing UK investment in renewable forms of energy is no magic wand, it must be part of the picture as we seek to address the growing gulf between energy suppliers and consumers and reduce the vulnerability of households to the storms of international markets. Alternatives to investing in renewable technologies include fresh exploitation of fossil fuels in the form of fracking, which could leave permanent scars to the countryside in parts of the UK, and the rolling out of an extensive nuclear programme, with associated problems of radioactive waste disposal. When weighed against these alternatives it is clear that renewable sources, for example in the form of wind turbines and solar panels, have a vitally important role to play in meeting the challenges of our growing energy demands.
To support the development of renewable energy the average UK household pays around £37 a year within their energy bills (out of an average bill of £1,267). For more information see The Guardian article Why do Energy Bills Rise? Whether this should be transferred to general taxation is another debate, but questioning the value of these subsides in a knee-jerk reaction to rising bills represents the worst form of political short-termism.
Leading the Way
We have argued so far that governments globally must act decisively on climate change as a large number of communities face an uncertain future. In parallel with this, the disconnection between the energy market and the people it serves must be fixed in order to avoid a fuel crisis which could have wide ramifications.
Community Energy Plus believes, as do the majority of people in the UK, that renewable energy is a key part of the solution.
Within the UK Cornwall, as well as embodying the potential threat in terms of climate change and rising energy bills, offers glimpses of a positive fight-back. The county has vast resources in terms of wind and solar irradiation (sunshine), wave energy and geothermal sources of heat. We are ahead of the game in many ways and Cornwall is admired the world over as a progressive centre of renewable initiatives.
Community Energy Plus has played a key part in channelling Cornwall’s sustainable ambitions. Amongst our other work we have helped to establish 16 community cooperatives, allowing these groups to translate their renewable energy aspirations into action. Whereas large-scale wind farms at present are the preserve of energy giants, these small to medium size installations use progressive community ownership models, imbedding the financial benefits from energy generation into the locality for years to come.
Within the county we spend £1.4 billion each year on energy. Whether that is domestically, commercially or on transport, 98% of that revenue instantly leaves the peninsula to supplement the reserves of national and multinational companies. Our ambition is to find ways of retaining some of this revenue in Cornwall, allowing communities to take ownership of their energy needs, directing revenue back into the locality to improve the energy efficiency of homes and ultimately to reduce the burden of fuel bills from the most vulnerable households upwards. Insulation and other measures can help to future-proof homes against price rises, cushioning Cornish residents against the instabilities of international markets and providing energy security for a fairer society.
Above we have argued the case for renewable energy to help tackle climate change, improve UK energy security, and to promote community ownership of energy generation. Arguments against renewable installations largely ignore this bigger picture, focusing instead on perceived detrimental effects in the immediate area. In the next installment we will address these issues, before going on to explore some of the exciting advances in energy capture and storage.