The dangers of short termism

EUROPE: Bold visions for the future contrasted sharply with the realities of democratic politics and the glacial pace of EU policy making at a conference on Europe's transmission networks last month. The Supergrid 2012 event was organised by Friends of the Supergrid, which lobbies for electricity infrastructure to be planned and built in cooperation across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to harness the area's abundance of renewable resources.

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It is an ambitious and expensive project, but its supporters claim the benefits for Europe of job creation, security of supply and climate change would be immense. Lord Stern, an economics professor who has authored an influential report on climate change, said that Europe would be making a huge mistake if it bluntly prioritised economic growth over the green agenda.

Meanwhile, in the US, as politicians dither on whether to extend financial support measures for new wind farms - the production tax credit - large companies in the sector are voting with their feet and winding down plans in that market.

With his usual vigour, Mainstream Renewable Energy's CEO and chairman of Friends of the Supergrid, Eddie O'Connor, said that Europe could build a grid twice the size needed with the EUR200 billion it spends on fossil fuels each year. Yet, the UK government has chosen to boost investment in new gas-fired electricity generation.

As the debate at Supergrid 2012 progressed, it became increasingly clear that the technical, bureaucratic and financial hurdles to realising a pan-European transmission network, daunting as they may be, were not the greatest. Belgian economy minister Johan Vande Lanotte summed it up well by pointing to the tension between the short-term pain and the long-term advantages an integrated grid would bring. Winning public support for this expensive and intrusive project remains the biggest problem.

Nobody should ignore the dangers of making decisions based on short-term gain that have the potential to cause economic, social and environmental damage for decades. In our cover story this month, we explore how wind farm owners and operators - and by implication the whole supply chain around them - are grappling with the problems associated with turbine decommissioning. Now that the industry has reached such scale and visibility across many parts of the world, it needs to work harder to maintain and enhance its green credentials.

The climate change debate in the 1990s created a momentum that led to the 20-20-20 targets in Europe - and with them strong support for renewable-energy generation that has seen it flourish across the continent in the past decade.

As the global financial crisis continues to dominate the headlines, it is only natural for politicians and policy makers to retrench to what is perceived as a safe stance, and the temptation is strong for politicians to waver in their support for green policies. There are signs already in the European Council that some countries are not fully behind the Commission's plans for energy infrastructure upgrade. But cooperation around the North Sea grid is advancing strongly and the progress of offshore wind in northern Europe and solar photovoltaics in the south seems unstoppable. Political support for green energy may be wilting, but the industrial strongholds it has created are a powerful reminder that it pays to take the long-term view.

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