Vestas & beyond: missing our green energy opportunitiesJuly 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change | 1 Comment
The other day, a friend asked me to tap a few words in support of the protests by workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory who’re trying to stop the loss of over 600 jobs and a potentially important resource for expanding renewable energy. Whilst that support is freely given and sincerely felt, the circumstances of the case have been so widely–stated and well-documented elsewhere that I don’t want to spend too long restating the obvious.
It’s clear that Vestas has acted with contempt towards its workers: the practically non-existent dialogue, the transparent attempt to starve them out, the delivery of termination letters with the workers’ one hot meal, the shoddy paperwork filed to have them evicted, and the laughable charge from their legal team that there was a fear the protests could get ‘heated’ or violent.
Equally, whilst Ed Miliband has handled the matter better than one might’ve expected, the charge that his government has lacked leadership on this can’t be ignored. Whether the option is nationalisation or, more preferably, a kind of decentralised, locally-run operation, there is a case for the government to facilitate some kind of deal to save the factory.
But I’d now like to leave the particulars of Vestas’ closure to one side and try to consider the case from a national perspective.
The common purpose shown by the pro-labour left and the green movement (and obviously there are overlaps between the two), comes from two sources. First, concern for the livelihoods of workers at risk of unemployment and disgust at how they’ve been treated, but also from a wider feeling of anger & frustration at what many activists feel has been a lack of resolute commitment by the government to tackle climate change and remodel our system of energy production.
Those activists have a point. However, so does Miliband when he argues that government shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for the lack of progress on wind farms; many councils have been resistant or hostile to planting turbines in their back yards, and many community campaigns have succeeded in having plans to build one in their area aborted. If the green movement – and the general public – is serious about seeing wind power as part of our energy future, then solely lobbying central government isn’t the way to go.
So the fault is partly on this government, partly on us for resisting change, and partly on the failure of green activism to make a grassroots case for why action is necessary and what rewards can be reaped.
For me, this all rather underlines the urgent need to be more radical about clean energy, and for government to create the conditions which make it easier for us all to take ownership of spreading green technologies. If we could really push forward with the ‘smart grid‘, take greater steps to decentralise electricity production & distribution, and incentivise micro-generation , you might just see more switched-on (pardon the pun) energy consumers.
Let’s just take one example from abroad. Denmark is currently the biggest source of wind power in Europe, but to get to that position it encouraged the public to invest in it; offering tax incentives for people who either generated their own electricity or as part of a commune. Eventually wind turbine cooperatives became commonplace, with individuals being able to own a stake in the power being produced. In 2004, over 150,000 Danes either owned turbines or shares in a turbine cooperative.
Could this not work in Britain? If there were genuine economic incentives as well as environmental benefits for individuals & communities embracing wind power (and green energy more generally) would the resistance to them really be so great? The advantage of these reforms is that it could enable the general public to become more involved, but first the government needs to create the conditions & incentives for it to happen.
Again, aside from the specific cruelties of the Vestas case, it should seen as reflective of a sense of frustration about Britain’s environmental and energy future. To turn that into positive action, our best hope might be to (quite literally) put power in the hands of the people.