07 February 2012

The Elephant In The Room

Written by Published in Issue 31 - Work It Out Read 6209 times

As 2012 gets under way, the battle between the Big Energy boys and the renewables advocates is getting serious, in the face of some truly ridiculous odds. Extreme PR manoeuvres have been in evidence, too


In the world of energy, circumstances are going to be difficult indeed during 2012. 2011 was a year of growing polarisation for those of us who long for a renaissance fuelled by renewables. The Germans announced targets to run their railway system entirely on renewable energy – mostly wind and solar. Yet BP declared it is going to quit solar entirely to pile ever further into tar-sands extraction, unconventional gas and the rest of the carbon-heavy status quo.


The International Energy Agency (IEA) pronounced that the cost of energy will rise ‘viciously’ on a global basis, without the help of clean energy. Yet the British ‘Big Six’ opted for so much gas that the installation rate of British renewables fell steeply: this despite UK conventional-energy prices soaring so high that one in four British households fell into fuel poverty in 2011, up from one in five in 2010.


Prices of solar electricity fell so sharply that more and more commentators talked of grid parity – whereby solar electricity is cheaper than conventional electricity, without subsidies – within a few years in many countries. Yet still governments, often responding directly to Big Energy entreaties, savagely cut the feed-in tariff subsidies that have been driving the systemic cost in renewables down.


There were a number of these stark contrasts in the theatre of energy last year. It seems that the closer renewables advocates get to their dream, the harder the defenders of the status quo push back the other way, notwithstanding the clear economic, environmental and social downsides of their argument.


They are surely teeing up some dramas for 2012, not to mention providing interesting research material for neuroscientists interested in how dysfunctional human cultures work. It is not as though the Big Energy boys and their cosy nexus with conventional capital just get on with these things and have done with it. They lobby for their short-term perceived interests – hard, and mostly below the radar – entraining many in officialdom and politics to their ruinous causes.


Let me recount an anecdote from December’s vital climate summit in Durban, to illustrate just how insidious the problem is. As the summit hung in the balance with just a day to go, the complete collapse of two decades of negotiations to reduce fossil-fuel burning seemed a real possibility. For many people, including the majority taking part, these negotiations have sought to head off certain environmental and economic ruin on a global scale. In London, Britain’s flagship current-affairs radio programme, Today, was on air. Unsurprisingly, the British Minister for Energy and Climate Change, Greg Barker, waited in a studio in Durban to air a live report from the negotiations. As he waited, Today ran a story and interview about the explosion of a Scottish wind turbine in high winds. Then they covered the drama in the Eurozone. You’ve guessed it: there was no time left for the minister’s report.


How is it that we can get priorities so wrong? The Eurozone may be in danger of collapse, but the planet is in danger of meltdown. As for the wind turbine, well! The utter shock of it. The scale of the evacuations! The thousands that had to be mobilised over the long months of clean-up! The dire threat, should terrorists ever be able to get their hands on an explodable wind turbine!


Such misguided priority-setting is only possible because of an enculturate backswing by elements in and around the Big Energy companies. These people, their umbrella lobbying groups and their many supporters amid officialdom and politics are defending vested interests ever more vigorously, as they see their licences to operate threatened, be it by policymakers, clean-energy alternatives industries, or both. Let us call this phenomenon, for the sake of simplicity, Big Energy blowback.


I am not alleging that the Today programme’s scheduling was a conscious part of this Big Energy blowback. What I am saying is that the exploding wind-turbine story could not have been given such national prominence without a wider zeitgeist created by the PR machine Big Energy has mobilised with which to defend conventional power. It is a machine that seeks to persuade people that soaring energy bills are mostly the result of ‘green measures’, rather than rising conventional-energy prices. It spreads the fear that renewable energy can’t be relied on, never mind that Germany gets at least 20% of its electricity from renewables. And so on and so on, myth by myth, right across the nuclear- and gas-funded PR agency storyboard.


What to do about this? Most of us do what we can to support renewables within our circles of influence, be they vocational or domestic. That might boil down just to switching supplier from EDF and other Big Six companies to Ecotricity or Good Energy.


But someone reading this might actually work in a Big Energy PR department, or in one of its hired-gun agencies. You could always leak us the plan for myth-sowing about renewables.

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