Why is everyone so angry about generating energy?
- 25 November 2013
- From the section Science & Environment
Britain faces difficult choices about its future energy supplies yet every proposal meets strenuous, sometimes hostile, objections. For The Editors, a programme that sets out to ask challenging questions, I wanted to find out why everyone was so angry about energy.
Propose a new wind farm for some beautiful uplands one morning and you can guarantee a protest group furious at the ruined views will have formed by the afternoon.
Suggest that we extract gas by fracturing a layer of deep shale and you can be sure celebrities will be superglued to the drilling rig before you have finished speaking.
Want to burn more coal because it's cheap?
You'll have climate scientists warning of the consequences and direct action campaigners reaching for the climbing kit.
And the merest hint that nuclear might be a good idea will trigger complaints about the cost and placards bearing images of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Everyone is angry about energy, and I am not talking about the fury sparked by the prices charged by the Big Six.
So why is the generating of electricity attracting such heat?
One answer is geography.
Originally our mains power came from stations burning coal close to where the electricity was needed - in our cities.
Then, as the National Grid spread its network of pylons across the country, the old Central Electricity Generating Board opted to stick the biggest plants close to the coal mines.
Hence the giant power stations in Yorkshire, among others.
Later, the government of Margaret Thatcher launched a "dash for gas" to capitalise on home-produced fuel from the North Sea and to weaken the stranglehold of the miners' unions.
The result was that Britain built up a mix of electricity, from power stations burning coal and gas with nuclear plants providing the rest, mostly in coastal locations close to abundant water and far from conurbations.
But suddenly the business of making electricity and extracting fuel is barging into areas that have previously been spared it.
Quiet fields everywhere from Lancashire to Sussex lie above potentially rich reserves of oil and gas.
Hills made famous by Thomas Hardy and landscapes portrayed by Turner are ideally windy for massive turbines.
No wonder the banners are out in force.
So energy is threatening to become a feature of regions that are used to receiving it rather than making it, and that's throwing up some interesting challenges and contradictions.
The conservation director of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Gary Smith, is convinced climate change is a serious threat and renewable power is an important part of the solution.
He likes wind energy in principle and admits windswept uplands like the Dales would - in a purely technical sense - be ideal for rows of turbines.
But he's steadfastly opposed to them.
"As a society we need more energy," he tells me as a stiff breeze buffets us near the beauty spot of Malham Cove, "and climate change feels like it's happening but that doesn't merit putting up massive wind farms here and ruining some of the country's biggest treasures.
"Commercial developers would think this is a cracking place for a wind farm but the price would be too high - there are plenty of other places where you can put them."
So if wind turbines are regarded as scenery wreckers, what about the more traditional route of a fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution?
Coal provides about 40% of the country's electricity, a remarkably high proportion given the government's commitment to be the greenest ever.
At the moment coal is cheap, partly because it is plentiful and partly because US power stations are switching to much cheaper shale gas. The downside is that it gives off more carbon dioxide than any other form of fuel, so burning too much of it would make it impossible for Britain to meet its targets for cutting emissions.
At Drax in North Yorkshire, the vast towers of the country's biggest power generator - and biggest carbon emitter - loom over the flat landscape but they are no longer alone: flanking them is a new line of wind turbines.
Phil Garner, spokesman for CoalPro, the UK coal producers, says: "Wind has its place - I'm not against it. But in the last 12 months this wind farm produced less than 1% of the electricity generated by Drax.
"Drax is chucking out a load of carbon dioxide but equally it's also producing a lot of affordable electricity and, if it wasn't there, the electricity would be from far more expensive forms."
His solution is to keep open coal stations currently slated to close and to build new more efficient ones that could eventually trap the carbon dioxide, though he accepts that technology is a long way off.
So if coal is cheap but too polluting and wind is seen as an intermittent eyesore, what about the nuclear option?
It is low-carbon but also relatively expensive and strenuously opposed by environmental groups.
Behind a carefully guarded security fence at Harwell in Oxfordshire stands all that is left of Britain's days in the 1950s as a pioneer of nuclear power.
A heavy steel door leads into one of the old reactor buildings. The nuclear fuel has long since gone and a Geiger counter registers no radiation.
Green activist Mark Lynas says: "If you want to deal with climate change, then you have to generate large amounts of zero-carbon power and while I want a massive expansion of renewables, they can't provide what you need when there's no wind and at night."
He was opposed to nuclear power for years but was then suddenly converted.
Mr Lynas says: "People are against everything these days - the only acceptable form of energy is magic. People are 'Nimby-istic', if that's a word, but if I had to have power generation close to me I'd prefer nuclear to coal or gas."
Gas is one of the government's great hopes, not so much imported as produced by fracturing shale rock here in this country.
But fracking has produced yet another wave of opposition, and in Downing Street I met protesters who had travelled to deliver a petition to the prime minister.
Kathryn McWhirter, who helped set up an anti-fracking group in Balcombe in Sussex, says she would prefer wind turbines around her village.
But Andrew Pemberton, a farmer from Lancashire worried about drilling pollution affecting his herd's milk, is not keen on wind, and he is not happy about nuclear or coal.
But to keep the lights on and a lid on energy bills and at the same time do something about carbon emissions, the country is going to need some very big energy projects - and very soon.
They have to go somewhere and, whichever type of power you choose, it is going to make someone angry.
BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it at 23:20 GMT on Monday 25 November on BBC One (except in Wales or Northern Ireland) or later on the BBC iPlayer.