Don't let loud opponents be the only voices heard

Environmental issues played just a minor part of the coverage of the 2012 Dutch elections, with references banished to the final pages, according to Richard Tol, a climate-economics professor in a leading newspaper.

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Tol observed that several pieces by politicians treated climate and environment as one topic and showed little interest in local environmental problems where active policies can make a difference. Parties instead focus mainly on climate policies, which are to a large degree dictated by the EU, he added.

The ruling Liberals and Social Democrats spoke of climate policy, he said, while others focused on waste, raw materials and asbestos. The Christian Democrats aimed to "curb climate change below 2%", whereas the real issue is about degrees of temperature rise. Populists deny human causes to climate change and call for an end to the renewables and energy-efficiency programme.

Tol indirectly ridicules policy that demonstrates a poor understanding and lack of long-term focus, and politicians for their enthusiasm for offering uninformed opinions on anything. Active climate policy comes at a cost, he concludes. What he fails to highlight is the cost of an alternative, passive scenario where little to nothing is done.

Tol concludes that energy-efficient devices are more expensive, but fails to consider the potential impact of reduced energy use during their operating life. His third conclusion, that "replacing cheap fossil fuels with expensive renewable sources will increase energy bills while slowing down economic growth", is even worse.

Leaked EU figures released by Climate Action Network Europe in October show a breakdown of EUR 130 billion of electricity subsidies distributed in 2011. It states that EUR35 billion went to nuclear and EUR 26 billion to fossil-fuel power generation. Another EUR30 billion was for renewable sources, including wind. The burning of coal and gas created an additional EUR40 billion in increased social and health costs, which were passed on to EU citizens rather than the energy producers that created these damages.

A quote by 1920s American humorist and actor Will Rogers, made long before the 2008 economic crisis, springs to mind: "An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's."

When an ethical business magazine interviewed Tol earlier this year, he said: "Being an academic, I can freely express any views, as long as these are based on facts." Unhindered by any modesty, he went on to offer provocative views on various topics, including wind, arguing that turbines are at the end of their innovation cycle and still not cost-effective. "For the moment, wind farms are uneconomical and turbines cannot compete with fossil fuels," he claimed. "Whether this situation will ever change is hard to predict. It is further fact that technology advancement, lowering investment per megawatt, has stalled. It is old technology and we do not expect any further breakthroughs.

"The only future perspective is in making them bigger, which slightly reduces investment cost because part of the installed devices is independent of rotor blade size," Tol continued. "The only justification for providing wind subsidies is to accelerate innovation, but today's subsidy levels prevent this. Investors are busy making money at the expense of innovation effort, which negatively reflects on new patents."

Wind industry innovation

My initial reaction was to point out to the editor the many ongoing wind-industry innovation efforts that offer huge potential for advancing technology and reducing the cost of energy. I would explain the trend for low-wind turbines with super-size rotors atop high towers that are now capable of converting previously unviable inland sites into profitable wind farms. I would also point to the world's longest rotor blades, at 83.5 metres, to be fitted on to a huge 7MW turbine this year, with much more to come in future.

I could have indicated the substantial and continuing gains in materials science and turbine control, and big advances in drivetrain development reliability, advanced testing and optimisation. In the end, I did not respond.

Engineers can prove their worth in important discussions that affect technology and the future of society, especially when in-depth knowledge adds real value. However, many engineers prefer to stay away from public debate, with some believing that efforts to address faulty or misleading facts and figures is a waste of time because stupidity shows automatically.

This attitude risks the wind industry losing out in the public debate to those actively seeking attention for their own ideas. Pro-active voices do not necessarily win by the virtue of superior views, but by taking the lead in pushing their arguments on to decision makers.

I consider forwarding a copy of this column to the aforementioned magazine editor, but whether it will prove a learning experience remains to be seen.

Eize de Vries is Windpower Monthly's technology and market trends consultant

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