Socialist Worker

Can renewables provide all our energy?

by Martin Empson
Issue No. 2245

Since my last column, the environmentalist George Monbiot has dropped his conditional support for nuclear power. He now argues that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima has convinced him that nuclear power is the only option to avoid climate change and meet the country’s energy needs.

Monbiot’s conversion stems from a lack of faith in renewable energy sources being able to provide the energy needed, meaning we must choose between nuclear or coal.

This is an echo of the arguments against renewable energy by the nuclear and fossil fuel industries.

They say we must expand nuclear power because it is the only method of generation that can keep up with demand.

We are told renewables are too “intermittent”, expensive, and would ruin the countryside.

But a 2008 report commissioned by Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund concluded that “there is no need to build new fossil-fuelled power generation to keep the lights on”. That is as long as commitments to energy efficiency and renewables are met.

Similarly, in Scientific American magazine, researchers showed the technology exists to provide all the world’s energy needs—with wind, wave and solar energy. Using these would reduce demand by 30 percent.

But cynicism remains. Recently I was challenged to show how renewable energy could provide electricity on a cold foggy day with no wind.

This is a common argument. But putting wind turbines off-shore utilises stronger and more constant wind. Putting them at different locations around the country reduces the chance of the system coming to a standstill.

And there are other sources that are just as practical and much more constant—such as tidal and wave power.

The government has just given the go-ahead for ten underwater tidal turbines to be installed between the Scottish islands of Jura and Islay. These will generate enough electricity for over 5,000 homes.

Britain is particularly well placed for this. Last October a larger scheme was announced for Pentland Firth with a potential capacity of up to 400,000 homes.


By combining different forms of renewable energy we can prevent the intermittency problems so beloved by those who argue against renewables.

Energy supply is also well placed for cross-border collaboration. We already buy energy from other countries during peak demands.

Modern high voltage direct current cables allow the transmission of electricity over long distances with minimal losses.

This makes it practical to imagine large solar electricity farms in the south of Europe generating energy to be used across the continent.

Finally, energy generation is incredibly wasteful in itself.

Greenpeace has shown that two thirds of energy generated is wasted either as heat at the power plants, or as the electricity travels along power lines.

This is “equal to the entire water and space heating demands of all buildings in the UK—industrial, commercial, public and domestic”.

By moving away from highly centralised energy generation, and upgrading and expanding the energy grid using modern technologies, much of this waste could be reduced.

A programme of insulation schemes and replacement of old, inefficient appliances would further reduce the amount of electricity needed, as would forcing companies to stop using stand-by switches on electrical equipment.

Government figures show there is the potential to reduce energy use by almost a third just through efficiency measures.

We can generate all our electricity needs without using nuclear power.

But our government is currently unwilling to invest the required cash. The real barrier is its ideological commitment to the free market.

We can imagine communal launderettes that wash clothes at night, when demand is less. But this would reduce the number of us buying washing machines, hitting manufacturers’ profits.

Cross-border energy generation is logical, but hampered by the national boundaries erected by governments to protect their interests.

This means that our energy future must be part of wider demands for social change. If this government will not invest in the needs of people, rather than the multinationals, we must fight for a society with different priorities.

Martin Empson is the author of Climate Change: Why Nuclear Power is Not the Answer. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, online at or on 020 7637 1848

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Tue 29 Mar 2011, 18:01 BST
Issue No. 2245
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