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Power to the people

Stretch Kontelj | Published:

RECENTLY Guernsey Electricity, in conjunction with deputies Barry Brehaut and Lindsay de Sausmarez, celebrated the switching off of the island’s diesel electricity-producing generator, coinciding with the commissioning of the island’s underwater electricity cable between Guernsey and France.

Solar panels with wind turbines and electricity pylon. (Picture by jaroslava V/Shutterstock)

Guernsey is now receiving some 90% of its electricity from France, where it is produced using low-carbon-emitting nuclear energy.

Electricity is still the main energy source in Guernsey, either imported from France or generated by fuel oil generators as back-up. Kerosene and LPG are widely used for heating, with small amounts of coal and wood also still used by some predominately for heating.

We take for granted at home that when we flick the switch the light will go on and when we plug into our electricity socket the power will be there. And so it’s been for the whole of our lives.

We have all experienced the absolute dread when the power goes down. Given Guernsey’s limited capability to be self-sufficient in the production of electricity, security of supply considerations are paramount. It is in this context that the States is currently facing into the need to develop an energy policy to help safeguard the island’s energy needs for the remainder of the 21st century.

Get it right and Guernsey will flourish, get it wrong and the island and its residents will be propelled down a path of misery.

Australia is a country in point. While it has some of the world’s most plentiful energy resources, it also has the world’s most expensive electricity.

Over the past 10 years, Australia’s electricity prices have risen by more than 120%. Over the same period, inflation has increased 26% and average wages have gone up 34%. In this context, it’s easy to appreciate why households and businesses are buckling under the burden of increased electricity prices. Low-income households are now spending around 10% of their income on electricity. This is outrageous and all the more so because it has been caused by failed government energy policy, in particular by the rush to meet over-ambitious renewable energy targets at the expense of affordability.

There are some in Guernsey who believe the solution to the island’s energy needs is to build wind turbines and erect solar panels to replace the imported power from France. In fact, several elected representatives have publicly suggested that Guernsey should shelve consideration of a second Guernsey-to-France pipeline in favour of renewable energy resources, namely solar and wind.

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The idea of replacing imported electricity with wind and solar is at first blush appealing. The vision of harnessing the wind and sun to generate electricity for the island’s energy needs is very enticing, however is it realistic? While it’s certainly true that the cost of harnessing wind and solar energy has dramatically fallen in recent decades, the problem with both these sources is that they are inherently intermittent and difficult to store.

The wind, while plentiful in and around Guernsey, nevertheless blows inconsistently and unpredictably. Likewise the sun, while abundant in the summer, doesn’t shine enough over the winter or at night. So even if Guernsey went seriously down the renewable energy route it would still need to source electricity from conventional sources to offset the intermittency and storage challenges associated with wind and solar.

We should not forget that the lifestyle we currently enjoy has only been possible due to the advances associated with electricity. So, while notions of emission reduction are important, aligning these to the proposed Guernsey energy policy needs to be done with caution. Being too bullish in the pursuit of renewables for energy production at the expense of affordability could be a recipe for financial and economic misery.

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Two hundred years ago, virtually all of society’s energy was renewable. Livestock was used for pulling carts and ploughing fields, while wood was used to heat homes and operate furnaces. At the same time, people worked long hours in harsh conditions doing physically back-breaking work. Fast forward and it’s easy to appreciate that the lifestyle we currently enjoy is the legacy of electricity and the advances it has allowed in every aspect of life. These advances are closely aligned to the use of fossil fuel and the reduction in the use of renewables from some 94% in 1800 to around 14% today. The reality is that only around 1% of the world’s energy is currently produced by solar and wind and this is estimated to increase to some 4% by 2040.

So, we need to be realistic when we see calls for solar and wind to replace Guernsey’s current energy supply. The other reality is that renewables also take up an incredible amount of space. For example, to replace a 1ha gas-fired power plant, you would need 73ha of solar panels or 239ha of wind turbines. Remember, wind turbines of today are the size of an airliner’s wingspan.

No question, a new energy policy is urgently needed for Guernsey, however it needs to be realistic not ideological.

In the opinion of energy expert Kathryn Porter, who spoke at the recent Institute of Directors convention, Guernsey should prioritise the building of a second direct connection to France where it can secure the supply of low-emission electricity and in this way further reduce the island’s dependence on fossil fuels. Electricity coming from France is low-carbon because it is produced predominately by nuclear and hydro sources. Ms Porter believes that the second cable would address both the security of supply and intermittency issues associated with renewable energy sources.

Focus should then be directed on reducing demand for electricity through island-wide initiatives that help promote Guernsey as a clean, green island.

Initiatives such as improving the heat retention of houses and commercial buildings and the ongoing support for more behind-the-grid generation of wind and solar power by homes and businesses that can be used to supplement their energy needs or be fed into the national grid.

Yes, there is a place for renewables in Guernsey’s proposed energy policy, however Guernsey must learn from the experience of larger countries and take care to balance the transition to renewable energy with a clear understanding of the impact on affordability and reliability.

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