Despite this emerging trend, the idea that consumers are willing to pay extra for electricity generated without causing pollution is one that continues to dumbfound utilities. Even the most enlightened have expressed "surprise" when their market surveys -- often intended to prove that customers will not put their money behind their green principles -- reveal the opposite. To the credit of several utilities, though, the results of these surveys have been acted upon. Green pricing options are being offered in a string of western countries and in Denmark, the Netherlands and now the American Northwest, they are linked directly to wind power.
The power sector establishment, however, remains unconvinced about what it mostly regards as a green fad based on misinformation. Once heavy green electricity bills start plopping through letterboxes, customers who have opted in will soon opt out again, is the current line of thought. They should perhaps take note of a conversation I had with my 12-year old-son while pondering the subject matter of this column.
"Mummy, how are we going to get through the next century, with all this pollution of the water and global warming and everything?"
"Well, it will be up to your generation to find better ways of using the world's resources."
"Yes, but how are we going to close a hole in the ozone layer?"
I had no reassuring answer. That children are being so effectively exploited by the green movement in order to goad action on the environment from their elders is perhaps a matter of concern in itself. That aside, my son is reminding us there is a whole generation growing up for whom green pricing will be a way of life, not a fad. Burning rays pouring through a gaping hole in the ozone layer might be a scarier image for a 12-year-old than the longer term threat of an overheated globe, but there is no mistaking his underlying message. Green pricing is far more likely to stay than to go away.
On its letter-head, an organisation in the United States, the Center for Citizen Initiatives-USA, puts it this way: "When the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow." It is an apt slogan for wind energy, too. The wind industry in Denmark, currently supplying half the world's wind power capacity, was founded on the willingness of the Danish people to take the job of electricity production into their own hands. They wanted to buy wind turbines and this demand created an industry. Where the utilities feared to tread, the people led. Ten years later, the utilities have learned a thing or two from the people; wind power development in Denmark is increasingly becoming their responsibility (page 8), as perhaps it should have been from the start. That is not to say, though, that the people have no role. Their willingness to pay a green price will persuade utilities that building renewable energy plant as an integral part of their power supply systems is a good idea. There is nothing which galvanises a utility more than the lure of extra cash.
Thus, in the west, it seems the concept of wind energy for the people is going through fundamental change. In the developing world, though, "one-man-and-his-wind-converter" is an idea gathering increasing support. The Center for Citizen Initiatives is among the many groups pushing hard for the use of small wind energy converters in remote settlements, in its case in the former Soviet Union (page 28). For off-grid applications, wind energy will remain in the hands of the people, even if the technical advancement of wind turbines has proceeded so rapidly that grid applications in the west have become the job of professionals.
Green pricing will be the spur which keeps the professionals moving. Note, too, that the perceived extra cost of wind is no deterrent to an environmentally concerned public. The fact that wind makes long term economic sense -- and paying more for it is plain unfair -- is a bitter pill consumers are readily swallowing. The detailed complexities of external costs are apparently beside the point. It is environmental politics which concern them, politics that even 12-year-olds can grasp.