August 26, 2014, by Paul Brown
Field of dreams: a community-owned solar farm near Oxford, UK
Image: Neil Maw/Westmill Solar Co-operative via Wikimedia Commons
Consumers worldwide increasingly want renewable energy sources to provide their electricity, yet many governments are ignoring them by continuing to exploit fossil fuels. LONDON, 26 August, 2014 − Public support for renewable energies across the world continues to grow, particularly in more advanced economies − with solar power being especially popular. At the same time, the policies of the governments in most of these richer countries do not mirror public opinion as many continue to develop fossil fuels, which do not command such popular support. An example is the UK, where the government wants to exploit gas reserves by the controversial method of fracking – fracturing rock to allow the gas to reach the ground surface. The Conservative government is also promising to cut down on subsidies for onshore wind farms and to build nuclear power stations. According to the public attitudes report published this month by the British government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, 36% of the population supports the plan to build new nuclear stations, and only 24% support shale gas extraction by fracking.
In contrast, 79% of the public is in favour of renewable energies to provide electricity. The UK has plentiful renewable energy and is exploiting several different types. Solar panels are the most popular form, with 82% of the public supporting their widespread use on the roofs of private houses and, more recently, solar farms in fields in the countryside. Other high scores for renewables were offshore wind (72% in favour), onshore wind (67%), wave and tidal (73%), and biomass (60%) − even though all need public subsidy to compete with fossil fuels. Despite the government’s public support for nuclear, there has been no start on a new station because a subsidy offered by the government is being investigated as potentially illegal under European Union competition legislation. Fracking is still at the exploratory stage and requires years of investment before any power could be produced.
Meanwhile, renewables keep on growing. In the first three months of this year, they produced nearly one-fifth of the UK’s electricity. Renewable energy generation was 43% higher than a year previously, showing the massive growth in the industry. Both onshore and offshore wind farms are growing quickly, with the UK now having the largest offshore wind industry in the world. The electricity output from renewables this year was boosted by high rainfall in Scotland, helping the country’s hydropower stations to produce more power, and windy conditions over the whole of the UK improving wind power output. The British government’s response to these successes has been a policy to reduce the subsidies for both wind and solar power, as improving technology and mass production lower unit costs, while increasing Treasury support for nuclear power and fracking. Germany has a similar public support for fossil-free energy – with 69% of consumers agreeing that the subsidies are needed to switch electricity generation to renewables. Unlike in Britain, all nuclear stations in Germany are being closed because of public demand, and fracking is unlikely to be considered. This is partly because 380,000 Germans already work in the renewable energy sector and its development is credited with helping Germany through the recent recession by creating manufacturing and maintenance jobs. Attitudes in the US to climate change and renewables have also changed in recent years, despite a barrage of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry attempting to cast doubt on the scientists’ predictions of global warming. The public supports renewable energies, irrespective of their views on global warming.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reports that 18% of Americans are alarmed by climate change and its effect on their country, and 33% are actively concerned. This is in contrast to 11% who are doubtful that climate change is man-made, and a very vocal 7% who believe it is a hoax or conspiracy got up by scientists and journalists. Dr Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale project, said “Whatever people’s view on whether climate change was man-made or not, all sectors agreed that there should be support for alternative energies. Subsidies for more fuel efficient and solar had wide public support. This cut across voters of all parties and no party.” Even in Australia, where the government has repudiated all efforts to combat climate change, 70% of the public support renewable energies. In the developing world, public knowledge of renewable energies is less, and so is the support − although solar power is popular. In India, where power cuts are a major headache for businesses, a recent poll showed that 50% of Indians want more renewable energy, and particularly solar power, believing it will help them get a more consistent electricity supply. – Climate News Network
Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.