25 July 2009

Wind Power is Our Mutual Friend

Bob Crow, whose RMT union is representing the workers occupying the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, asks with understandable frustration why money can be found to keep RBS afloat when the much smaller sum that would be needed to keep this industry of the future in Britain is denied. The answer is simple if unpalatable: the interests of business prevail over those of the people. We might say that capital is dominant and labour discounted.

From a green economics perspective we might look at this in different terms. Our current economy is dominated by money; a green economy would have energy as its central value. If you remove the distorting lens of a capitalist vision the decision to premit the redundancy of skilled workers who produce machinery that can turn moving air into energy is absurd.

It almost makes you join Bob Crow in yearning for the days when there was political direction over vital areas of public life, whether energy, water, or transport. Certainly, many whose own lives have been dedicated to the political freedom of others have looked enviously at the rapid progress towards a sufficiency economy that Cuba made following the ending of cheap oil imports from the Soviet Union. And China seems best placed to shift its economy rapidly towards a low-carbon future precisely because it does not have to worry about selling these changes to a sceptical electorate.

But the answer is not to sign away from our hard-won right to power over our lives, or to return to the days of public ownership and central planning, it is rather to call for ownership and control at the local level. Vestas offers a perfect example of how a mutual future would achieve the advantages of rapid change without the political opposition that arises when people feel they are powerless pawns in another move that is for the benefit of others.

It seems incredible that the market for wind turbines in the UK is too small to keep the plant in production. The reason is the slow rate of agreement on the siting of these desperately needed energy plants because of local planning opposition. Communities will not agree to having windfarms in their 'view' when the profits are extracted and they gain nothing in return. If the turbines are community owned, research indicates that this opposition evaporates.

And if Vestas central - and how strange it feels that the bad guys in this particular story are Scandinavian - has no need of this plant because it is receiving a better 'green new deal' from President Obama, then it should be passed on to the skilled engineeers and lathe-turners who are the heart of the company. Like the workers at Tower Colliery in South Wales, there is no doubt that they will be able to keep the factory going without the dubious skills of managers and money-men.

There are numerous reasons why capitalism is unsustainable but perhaps the most pressing is that, in pitting the interests of labour against those of capital, it slows the process of change. In a time when a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy is essential this could truly be a fatal flaw. As the new Co-operative advert says, the answer really is blowing in the wind.


  1. "But the answer is not to sign away our hard-won right to power over our lives, or to return to the days of public ownership and central planning, it is rather to call for ownership and control at the local level."

    The state is centralised and remains the only effective mechanism for restructuring the economy, through a democratically-elected government with a parliamentary majority power could be decentralised, given back to local authorities to raise and spend funds on renewables.

    From Bob Crow's perspective as a union leader trying to advance the interests of his members, it looks more likely that the government will renationalise the railways than the Co-op will buy the franchise for the East Coast line.

  2. Planning is not a problem for the UK wind energy industry, and to say that local opposition to wind turbine is responsble for the Isle of Wight Vestas closure is simply wrong.

    Consider the facts: according to the British Wind Energy Association some 6,200 MWs (6.2 GWs) or roughly 3,000 turbines have planning consent but are not yet under construction.

    Half of these turbines are onshore and half offshore.

    If built these would more than double the UK wind capacity (currently just over 3 GW).

    In reality, then, planning is not an issue, so instead of complaining about NIMBYs why is the industry so slow in getting on with those consents it already has?

    One reason is the lack of very costly grid infrastructure in remote areas.

    Equally important, however, is a fundamental lack of investor confidence in the government's over-ambitious renewables policies and the large subsidies needed to drive them.

    That is why wind farms are not being built rapidly, and why the Vestas plant is closing.

    More modest, realistic and credible renewables targets would help.

    And instead of pointing the finger at communities understandably protesting against a few toxic onshore windfarms next to their villages it would be good if the greens put some pressure on developers to behave in a responsible and sustainable manner.