Nick Rosen | |
George Monbiot - a green turn-off

Everybody in UK eco-circles is talking about George Monbiot this week, which is just the way he likes it.

George Monbiot is an unashamed cheerleader for big power – his column in the Guardian has previously come out in favor of large nuclear power stations, and this week he spoke out against micro-generation.  George Monbiot is also in favor of large, centralised wind farms and other forms of renewable energy, and sets himself firmly against micro-generation –which he caricatures as a middle class subsidy.

The occasion for his latest outburst was the introduction of the UK government-backed Feed-in tariff (FiT), which will reward householders and others who generate renewable energy back into the grid.  Ignoring the fact that the FiT was enormously successful in Germany, which has become a European leader in micro-generation,  “the only renewables policy that makes sense,” says George, “ is to build big installations where the energy is – which means high ground, estuaries or the open sea – and deliver it by wire to where people live.”George Monbiot has missed several points here – the most important is that the reasons for installing micro-power are not entirely financial – it is also good for energy security if each house has its own power supply, and it is empowering (literally) for communities, to know they are collectively able to generate power independently of the grid.  Then there are multiple other considerations – the expected increase in fuel bills, the incredible inefficiency of the grid in transporting electricity around the country, and the likely increase in efficiency of wind turbines, solar panels, Ground source heat pumps, Bloom boxes, methane digesters and other forms of micro-power. We can expect a reduction in price, as the technology improves and the economies of scale increase. But again, price is only one issue, there is also the social benefits in terms of attitudinal change and awareness of environmental issues. And I have not even begin to list the environmental benefits.

George Monbiot cited a McKinsey report saying geothermal cost £3 to save a tonne of carbon whereas . That isn’t an option in the UK. There is no geothermal. The McKinsey report is based on other countries.

George Monbiot has a huge following of middle class liberal Guardian readers, but over the years he has proved himself to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  His condescending and  puritanical outbursts against those who disagree with his stance on global warming have encouraged others to equally overstate the green case, and turn off millions of potential supporters.  Along with films like The Age of Stupid, George Monbiot accuses Global warming “deniers” of being stupid – and so, of course, they respond by ignoring him

George Monbiot says that the “solar rip-off” is a government subsidy for a middle class status symbol, but what about the hundreds of thousands who live in council housing and housing association houses – are they somehow excluded from this scheme? Certainly not – they will be just as able to take part, and a whole category of householder who has hitherto been excluded from the eco-movement will suddenly be part of it again – just not on the terms that George would like.

As FiT allows councils and social housing organisations to become electricity producers, they will pass on some of their savings to tenants and that will be more than a financial gain – it will also raise eco-consciousness.
George Monbiot lives in a strange world, a parallel universe, where his religious approach to saving the planet means he is forever engaged in strange, almost metaphysical arguments about which policy will or will not harm the environment.

He even supports large nuclear power stations because they emit no carbon, even though these plants have huge embodied costs, require vast pylons to be built everywhere and even though the industry is moving towards smaller nuclear reactors.

Yes, its true the Germans have now cancelled their FiT scheme, as the UK will do in 3-5 years. But its job is done. A green industry has been nurtured. A skills base has been built. Eco-consciousness has been raised.

And those millions of German homes are now off-grid ready – they no longer need the grid, its an aging technology and the wrong way to organise the energy/social structure.

Its time George Monbiot started listening.  The planet is cooling (this year), the world is changing – only Monbiot stays the same.

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2 Responses to “Monbiot anti-micropower rant is anti-green”

  1. the1nigel

    Please could you state the source of your comment about “millions of Germans living off-grid”?
    Not withstanding your off-grid perspective to which FiT’s don’t really apply, smart meters alongside PV, would make more of a difference to our emissions and supply security in future. And a smarter distribution network is a government energy policy priority for the next 20 years, which is sensible.
    Smart systems could enable smaller PV installations to cover more of modern demands. So the money spent on FiT’s may well be better aimed at developing smart distribution grids first. Especially as we get bugger-all sunshine these days in these parts. A smart system which could load-shed within the house would go some way to levelling the playing field between a typical 2kWp PV installation and demand. But 2kWp is not nearly enough to give most people’s household supply security! And who could afford a bigger system which might do the job, apart from the wealthy? Anyway, I think a combination of ground source heat pump and solar thermal water is more compatible with climate and demand patterns here and so a better investment. Get the PV electricity from the sunnier places (like deserts or southern europe) where concentrating technologies are viable and pipe it north on HVDC (far lower losses than HVAC). That’s a better use of investment funds if we are going to employ PV en mass, IMHO.
    Your point about household supply security and community empowerment as a reason for installing micropower really doesn’t add up. Especially as the average daily electricity demand to run our “stuff” according to MacKay (Sustainable Energy without the hot air) is around 50kWhp which we could easily double if we include heat, lighting and charging the electric car in future. All this will need big electricity – whether it comes from really big offshore wind farms in the UK or a few nukes. Either way, we can trim our costly generation requirements by managing the peaks and troughs of demand better – smart networks again.
    I think Monbiot (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/solar-panel-feed-in-tariff) has a point – although I’m not in favour of too many large scale nuke stations either – unless they are situated in France and interconnected to the UK that is…-:)

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