Monday, December 10, 2007

Britain goes green

One of the basic facts of climate change policy is that if we are to make the drastic emissions reductions necessary to ward off dangerous levels of climate change, we need to take significant steps to decarbonise our electricty supply, switching away from old, dirty technologies such as coal in favour of new, low- or zero-carbon ones. In the UK, the government has been using this to push for a new generation of nuclear power stations, arguing that only nuclear can provide the electricity necessary to replace existing coal and gas turbines. But in an abrupt about-face, they've suddenly decided to push for wind instead, announcing a massive increase in offshore wind generation, with the goal of having an additional 25GW of generation by 2020. This would be enough to meet all of the UK's residential electricity demand.

The government is quite clear about what this entails: it will change the British coastline forever, with an average of 2 turbines per mile along the entire coast (in practice, the turbines will be clumped together, but they will become a ubiquitous feature of the seascape). But it's either that, or nuclear (a real salmonella option in the UK, given its nuclear industry's history of lax safety standards), or seeing parts of the UK go under water again. Energy security also appears to be a significant driver (as it is in much of Western Europe now). While this won't even come close to eliminating natural gas from the generation mix (the UKis aiming for a target of 20% renewables by 2020 - strong by European standards, low by NZ ones), it will at least provide some insulation against the sorts of supply disruptions Europe experienced earlier in the year.

As for the rest of Europe, the news from there is also looking good, with the German government increasing minimum prices for offshore wind, and an expected wave of new construction as the technology matures. So Europe at least is heading down the right path.

(Why offshore? Because the wind is stronger and steadier there, whereas on land it is disrupted by ground clutter. Europeans have to go offshore to get the wind and capacity factors we take for granted here in NZ, which makes wind a much more expensive option. We will no doubt see offshore wind farms here eventually too, but we have plenty of good sites on land to exploit first).