Owen Patterson was until a recent government reshuffle the UK environment secretary, basically responsible for the non-energy side of the environment (food, farming, national parks, forests, etc) largely in England. He reputedly was a holder of the post who did not believe in climate change and would not be briefed by his government’s scientists on the issue (something he will not confirm or deny). I heard him interviewed on the radio two weeks ago after he gave a speech attacking the government (not just on the environment – he does not seem to agree with his party on much). This is my brief response to this interview (which was all about his environmental attitudes and ideas). Owen Patterson made four points, in no particular order…
- Climate change has been slowing down since the 90’s. This is the sceptics current favourite point. Interestingly like most sceptics in Europe Owen Patterson does not deny man made climate change, just suggests its not as bad as its made out to be. I think he does believe in it, he’s too intelligent not to. Anyway what he said is not really true. Land temperatures have slowed down but most of the worlds surface is water. That is where the energy is mostly going. Also El Nino and sunspot activity have depressed the temperatures on land, expect a bounceback at some point in the future.
- The big problem all these people have is wind energy (hence the photo), the perceived ugliness of wind turbines is what seems to tip them over to climate scepticism . Owen Patterson does not like wind turbines to look at. This then leads onto saying they are unreliable and don’t work. This latter point is untrue for the last week UK wind power has beaten nuclear and all records. I personally like wind turbines (as polls suggest in the UK most do- even those who live near them), however I do have increasing concerns about proliferation, really infilling between on-shore wind farms. There are places I would definitely be unhappy to see them but still think there are plenty of dreary bits of country as well as industrial areas where they can go. So I do have just a bit of sympathy here Owen Patterson’s views since I don’t want to see them everywhere and think there is an upper limit to the number of turbines on land. I am however very enthusiastic about off shore wind, which I suspect he is not. Where I strongly disagree is that the grid will collapse with wind power since we cannot rely on it. The forecasting is remarkably accurate. In any case no one is suggesting just using wind power, but a basket of technologies. What we must ensure we have is adequate energy storage and we need a lot more of this fast or we are going to have problems dealing with our excess output.
- Conservation. Owen Patterson made a number of good points about energy conservation and its importance. The only example he gave was about smart fridges and freezers. An interesting one and a good idea although non of these devices are as far as I know on the market. There is good news on this Mr Patterson. Peak electricity demand in the UK is falling. This is partly due to the EU (something Owen Patterson does not like), which is perhaps why he did not mention energy efficient bulbs and the EU mandated phaseout. With 25% of domestic energy being used for lighting this is one reason why energy demand is falling. Another is more efficient white goods (another EU directive). Another reason is a massive amount of micro-generation.
- The last and most controversial bit of the interview was about energy security. Since renewables don’t work (I beg to differ), we must embrace nuclear and fracking. His nuclear power idea was to use lots? of small reactors. These small reactors have been talked about for decades but none have ever been built. There was even talk of making them portable and even using them in disaster relief. The problem with talking about fracking, nuclear and energy security in the same sentence is that its a complete contradiction in terms. It would take at least a decade to get either going in the UK or Europe to make any serious contribution to this problem, too late. In addition Mr Patterson wanted the nuclear to do combined heat and power. This must mean (although he did not say so) the nuclear plants being in urban areas. In these days of terrorism and IS this is a complete nightmare. Can you imagine the opposition? Also would you want your hot water even indirectly from a reactor, (no me neither). On fracking it would make the opposition to wind look minor. When I was researching this for our book I was stunned just how many wells had to be drilled. Its hundreds and hundreds per field. That’s lorries, water, waste and large areas of concrete on a vast scale. Its not going to happen and even if it did even Lord Browne (ex BP now a fracker) says it will not lower gas prices.
I just wish politicians would think about the practicalities of some of their solutions before they opened their mouths….