Clean energy is healthier, better for the planet, and free - supporters should step up efforts to promote its benefits
Free - is there a more attractive word in the English dictionary? Free speech, free markets, free wifi - we all love free stuff. It is the root of freedom, the promise of something for nothing, the politicians' stump speech and the marketeers' gold dust. We all want things to be "free".
For years the left has bemoaned the way in which the neoliberal right has annexed the word "free", equating freedom and free markets in a way that gives the freedom to do something - minimise taxes, evade "red tape", own a gun - primacy over the freedom from something - decrepit infrastructure, exploitative working conditions, not getting shot by a gun. This trick has been so successful that it has been repeated time and again in the positioning and branding of countless policies and products. So free schools are free from the "dead hand" of central state control and we'll ignore the fact that some kids are no longer free from the teaching of utter nonsense. Free online services are empowering and cost you nothing, so long as you can ignore the truth in the old adage about you being the product. And free markets ensure goods and services are distributed in the most efficient manner possible, assuming you ignore the way in which unaccounted for externalities leave us all free to pollute the atmosphere.
Like I say, many industries have been highly successful with this linguistic gambit. But there is a notable exception - clean energy. For what is renewable power if not free energy? While companies have attempted to position this energy as green, clean or secure, they have often missed the most obvious benefit, it is also free. When the UK generated a record 6GW of wind power last Friday, it was, in some important respects, free power. That is to say the marginal cost of providing it was so negligible as to be close to non-existent. The 6GW of wind power delivered on Friday afternoon meant that there was no need to fork out for 6GW worth of gas from Vladimir Putin at that point in time, because the UK was generating its own power from a fuel that is entirely free.
Now, like any use of the word "free" this is something of a trick. The fuel is free - the wind, the sun's rays, the movement of the tides cost nothing. But the means of harnessing that fuel is obviously not free, you have to invest in building and maintaining the technologies needed to exploit the fuel. That is why we face the perverse scenario where the only energy technologies that rely on genuinely free fuels are regarded as being amongst the most expensive forms of generating power (as long as you ignore the polluting externality costs associated with fossil fuels).
And yet, I'd argue providers of clean power have a justifiable case for positioning themselves as providers of "free power" as they look to build upon the already high levels of public support they enjoy.
Firstly, the calculations that compare the costs of different energy technologies are increasingly contested, and not just because of the continued failure to properly account for the off balance sheet economic, environmental, and health costs of greenhouse gas emissions. There is growing evidence from regions as diverse as Africa, Brazil, Germany and the US that wind and solar farms in the right location and the right circumstances can undercut fossil fuel power on cost even when the relatively high initial capital cost of renewables projects is taken into account. The virtually non-existent marginal cost of delivering power from renewable sources is reshaping the power market in the southern states of America and Germany in ways that not even the most astute energy analyst could have predicted. Meanwhile, the cost of many renewable technologies continues to fall, in some cases drastically, even as the cost of oil and gas remains stubbornly high in most parts of the world.
Secondly, consumers are much more savvy than many politicians and businesses give them credit for. They understand that clean energy costs more upfront, but the quid pro quo is that they then generate power from a free fuel source, meaning energy is provided at a predictable and low cost. Kirsty Alexander of the Nuclear Industries Association, which faces a similar challenge with high capital costs and relatively low and stable running costs, argues there is powerful precedent for people agreeing to pay more for a service where the costs are predictable in the form of fixed rate versus variable rate mortgages. Millions of people are willing to pay more for their mortgage for a period of predictable costs, why shouldn't the same rationale be applied to clean energy, particularly when those predictable running costs are so low?
Thirdly, and most importantly, the simple rationale that the fuel that generates power from wind and solar farms is free remains unimpeachable. People understand that the "free minutes" on their phone contract are dependent upon them buying the phone and signing the contract. They know that the "free" access to BT Sport is dependent upon them becoming a BT Broadband customer. Well, the "free" power from your rooftop solar panel is dependent upon you buying and installing said solar panel. Once the upfront cost is covered you will see your energy bills plummet as you make use of free clean power whenever it is available. That is why growing numbers of factories and corporate offices are deploying solar arrays, that is why the likes of Google and IKEA keep buying wind and solar farms, and that is why you will find no more powerful advocate of domestic solar panels than the people who have installed them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that people like free power.
Inevitably, critics of clean energy will reject this positioning, fixating on the high capital costs of clean energy while ignoring the extent to which the current energy system is reliant on costly, volatile, insecure and environmentally damaging fuels. They will also argue, with some justification, that the "free" power provided by renewables has a sizable downside in the form of its variable nature. This is a fair criticism given we cannot guarantee that the wind will always deliver the 6GW of free power we saw last week. But grids can and do cope with high levels of variable power and they are already helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels that we have to pay for. Moreover, we now know we have access to large scale sources of free fuel that can provide the backbone of a decarbonised energy system if we can just develop viable storage technologies. We are one piece of the jigsaw away from power that you can justifiably classify as "free".
This understanding of the merits of free power is already evident at the individual business and household level where numerous companies and individuals are opting to deploy onsite renewables, because with conventional energy costs soaring they like having access to virtually free power whenever it is available. Solar and wind power may not always deliver high levels of output, but as growing numbers of companies and factories are finding, it is worth being able to slash your use of grid power when clean and free sources of fuel are available.
It is possible to envisage a scenario where free clean energy provides free fuel for electric cars and homes that have taken advantage of energy efficiency financing to undertake building improvements that are effectively, you've guessed it, free.
I have long argued the clean energy sector has not done nearly enough to build on its natural public popularity and aggressively market itself as an attractive, cost effective, and essential source of power for the 21st century. The term "free power" has the potential to emphasise the innate elegance and competiveness that makes fast-evolving clean energy technologies so much more attractive than spending billions digging up costly and polluting fuels. After all, we all prefer free stuff.
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