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United Kingdom

Hight time to strike back

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most rabid members of the campaign against wind power in Britain, the leader of the opposition Conservative party made it clear last month that he will fight the next general election with at least one foot on an anti-wind power platform (page 33). In all probability, Michael Howard has well and truly shot himself in that foot. Ask the people of Britain to make a choice about electricity generation and most will vote for wind power. But the damage wrought by Howard in the meantime could be appalling. His action has boosted what is already an extraordinarily persistent, anti-wind campaign, relentlessly feeding the press and media with a diet of well-turned lies and misinformation. As an exercise in the power of propaganda, it should go down in the history books. The campaign's most recent tack is to disguise itself as the "genuine" renewables movement. For a clue to the source of much of the most creative reporting of recent weeks, take a look at the Renewable Energy Foundation at www.ref.org.uk.

Why should the reactionary antics of a has-been island off the north European coast be of concern to the international wind power industry? Because if Britain's current energy policies give way under the pressure, the wind market will collapse, taking with it the reputation of this entire industry. The reverberations of the media onslaught are already reaching far and wide, with press in Australia, New Zealand and the United States picking up the falsehoods rampant in British newspapers. Perhaps the most telling single thread in the reporting is the conclusion reached -- that wind is nothing more than politically correct child's play and the one true salvation lies in nuclear.

Anti-wind power sentiment boils down to four main concerns: that wind turbines spoil attractive landscapes and wildlife habitat; that when the wind stops blowing so does electricity supply; that only vast arrays of turbines can provide enough power to make a difference; and that wind power is expensive. The concerns are easy to counter. Environmental opposition crumbles in face of the alternatives: global warming, storing nuclear waste, unproven renewables, or living with power shortages. That is why mainstream environmental groups like Greenpeace back wind. The technical concerns have no foundation. More than 40,000 MW of wind power stations daily demonstrate that wind makes a significant contribution to electricity supplies and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The lights stay on without dedicated back-up power -- even in regions where for periods wind meets total demand -- and if a small land like Denmark can get 20% of its electricity from wind turbines without being overrun by them, so can other countries.

That leaves the matter of cost. Wind power is one of the cheapest electricity options around, a conclusion reached by any decently conducted power costs analysis. To see the theory in practice, look no further than the low wind prices in the US. They are driving the wind rush by America's power production industry (pages 23-26). It is a shame the same cannot be said for Britain. Wind prices in the UK are running at nearly three times the level of those in the US. That is a shocking indictment of the Renewables Obligation (RO). Excellent in concept, the legislation was fatally flawed in its structure from the start, as this column vehemently argued as far back as April 2000. We have continued to argue the point in articles ever since.

Choosing the weapons

If the wind industry is to stop the anti-wind power rot in Britain it needs to take serious action on two fronts. First, it must put huge sums of money into an aggressive counter campaign, nothing less than a painstakingly informed, beautifully articulate, highly professional, well orchestrated, wide reaching and proactive public relations crusade. A first aim should be to mend the British public's disconnect between the problem of global warming -- and one of its best solutions. Arming a top celebrity or two to lead the charge would be good. The message has to be clear, confident and unapologetic. The British Wind Energy Association's recent decision to back tidal stream and wave power alongside wind might be an attempt to counteract the "unbalanced policy" accusations of wind's opponents, but it makes it look as if this industry lacks the courage of its own convictions. Remember that Britain pumped over £40 million (today's prices) into wave R&D in the late 1970s, a five year program that folded with nothing to show for it. Compare that with the meteoric rise of wind and its similar history and decide which technology has most potential.

Second, the industry must rid itself of the fear of rocking the RO boat (page 43). It must be far more proactive (and far less self serving) about fixing the failings of the RO. Good solutions exist -- tweaks and changes to the structure -- for bringing wind prices down, adding a build-now imperative, and blocking the big players from controlling the show. A solution for lowering the RO's market risk, responsible for keeping prices high, was championed in this magazine in December. High prices might look great to an industry raking home good profits today, but it will live to regret them in leisure tomorrow.

The best campaign tactic of all might be to get Britain's nuclear program reinstated. That would force a seriously thorough examination of all the alternatives for prevention of global warming and avoiding an energy crisis. Wind would emerge a clear winner.

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