Energy needs a reality check

Just as Queen Elizabeth II's husband, Prince Philip, launched a scathing attack on "useless and ugly" wind farms last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an urgent warning on the extreme weather events - mainly catastrophic floods and drought - we will increasingly experience as a result of global warming.

How ironic. The overwhelming evidence of average temperature rises across the globe has not deterred climate deniers from insisting that man-made climate change is a fiction. In the same way, the fact that millions of homes and businesses in Europe, North America and China - and smaller but rising numbers in other countries too - are powered by clean, safe and reliable wind energy at a cost that is not hugely different from that of fossil fuels or nuclear power has not stopped Prince Philip from arguing that the whole idea of wind energy is nonsense.

The Duke of Edinburgh is not alone in objecting to the visual impact of wind turbines. And it is easy for wind-power critics to score points by stating the obvious truth that a wind turbine will not turn 100% of the time, simply because the wind does not blow at all times in any one location. But there is a wider picture. If we are to use energy in increasing amounts over the years to come - as is to be expected in a world where 1.6 billion of its 7 billion inhabitants do not currently have any access to electricity - then we need to look seriously at all viable options.

Oil, coal and gas were the engines that powered the western world's astonishing technological and economic progress in the past three centuries. Today using these fuels is becoming politically harder, as they contribute to global warming, and technically more expensive as the most easily accessible sources are exhausted. Nuclear power, in the absence of a breakthrough on fusion, still poses a number of question marks over its safety and ultimate viability.

Renewable-energy technologies, by contrast, are gaining ground. They have progressed very quickly and promise to play a crucial role in helping humanity meet its energy needs. The wider picture is quite clear. Onshore wind power, as even the conservative International Energy Agency has now acknowledged, is very much on course to becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels. In some cases, it already is.

Offshore wind power, as our front cover story this month points out, still has many questions to answer. An expensive and still relatively untested technology, it offers huge potential but at high cost. Solar photovoltaic energy was considered astronomically expensive only a few years ago; now it has reached grid parity in some parts of the world. There is no reason why offshore wind should not follow a similar trajectory, once critical issues such as scale, supply chain and grid connections are addressed (see page 47).

Thousands of people are devoting their minds, hearts or funds to improving the efficiency of wind power and other renewable-energy sources. Whatever their background and personal history, a key professional aspiration they share is to make plentiful energy accessible and affordable for large numbers of people. It would be foolish to allow the quirky quips of a very privileged man - who over the years has labelled Beijing as "ghastly", the new British Embassy in Berlin "a waste of space" and has suggested ridding London of tourists to ease congestion - quash their vision.