Can Nature Conservation and Renewable Energy be Two Sides of a Sustainable Solution?

On 7th November 2012 Tony gave the Keynote Address at the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management Conference

The rapid expansion of renewable energy is a relatively recent phenomenon in this country. Although there has been a modest contribution from hydropower for many decades, more visible evidence for the recent rise of clean energy has been seen during the last decade or so in the deployment of on and offshore wind power parks. Solar panels fitted to houses and commercial properties are an even more recent sign that an energy revolution is under way. Energy crops are in many fields, while UK ports are unloading an increasing quantity of forest-derived biomass for combustion in power stations. Small scale tidal and wave generation is getting underway and should government back these technologies they could in the years ahead gain scale.

These and other renewable energy sources have been deployed to meet policy goals linked to energy security and environmental targets, including domestic legislation that requires cuts in carbon dioxide emissions of eighty per cent by 2050 and EU policy that demands that twenty per cent of energy be derived from renewable sources by 2020. 

While the case for renewables has become increasingly accepted, in common with all other energy technology groupings, renewables have a range of pros and cons.  These include potential impacts (both positive and negative) on biodiversity. Critics of renewables, looking at the downsides in the round, and from the point of view of impacts on wildlife, cost, visual impact and intermittency, have suggested that instead of harnessing wind, wave, tide and sun, that a combination of nuclear power and natural gas might best achieve the twin goals of low carbon and secure energy, but it seems to me this is mistaken.

An increase in gas-fired power generation, even if replacing old coal stations, is not compatible with the demands Climate Change Act, at least not without carbon capture and storage technology. This fossil fuel, at least when derived from conventional sources, is relatively low carbon compared with coal, but unfortunately not low enough.

Nuclear power is lower carbon, but despite years of being talked-up by industry advocates and in political speeches, we are in reality not much closer to building new stations that we were in the early 1990s, when the last one to be opened here in the UK was commissioned in the form of the Sizewell B PWR reactor. The simple fact is that nuclear is too expensive and investors are unsurprisingly wary of the huge risks of putting finance into such a long-term programme that may in the end not deliver a return. This is especially the case given the industry’s long track record of cost and timetable overruns. This, coupled with other drawbacks, has condemned nuclear power to a period of long-term decline.

While some prominent greens these days speak in support of nuclear power, bear in mind that no matter what the merits of the carbon and climate argument, the chances of lots more nuclear stations actually being build are really quite low. For example, in 2011 and in 2012 up to July, worldwide only seven new reactors were started up, while 19 were shut down. At the same time as just one country has embarked on a new nuclear power programme (Iran) four others (Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Taiwan) have recently said they are going to end theirs. At least five others (Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, and Thailand) have decided not to engage or re-engage in nuclear programs, although they had previously planned to do so.

In Brazil, France, India and the United States, new build projects were officially cancelled. In the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. key utilities have recently withdrawn, leaving projects in jeopardy. Overall the nuclear share of world power generation has declined steadily, from a historic peak of 17 percent in 1993 to about 11 percent in 2011. I think this situation speaks for itself as to the likely future for nuclear power. Hitachi has recently announced its intention to build two new nuclear stations in the UK, but whether these plants will actually get built I believe remains uncertain.

So if gas is too carbon intensive and nuclear is looking uncertain, what is left in being able to meet our twin national priorities for energy policy: to cut its environmental impacts, while ensuring security of supply? It seems to me that we are basically left with a transition to an energy economy based largely on the very efficient use of renewably energy.

But what of the downsides, especially in relation to biodiversity? There are several potential negative impacts. One is land take. Wind turbines and biofuels and large-scale solar photovoltaic arrays can occupy land in ways that compete with other uses, including nature conservation, not least through indirect land use changes. Disturbance and collisions with birds and bats can be caused by wind turbines while tidal schemes might have profound impacts on coastal and in particular intertidal ecosystems. Hydropower, both small and large scale, can obviously have profound impacts on aquatic systems, including through disrupting sediment movement and fish migration.

All of these risks are real, but can be mitigated, and in many cases transformed from negative impacts and into positive opportunities.

Some of the synergies that I have come across, whereby biodiversity and renewable energy objectives are being integrated, demonstrate the potential we have. During a recent visit to the Little Cheyne Court wind power park near Dungerness I saw how the land was being managed to improve the biodiversity values around the turbines. This included through the improvement of grassland habitats and thereby assisting with the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee, which had previously been declared extinct in the UK.

There are also major biodiversity benefits that can be gained in the correct design of offshore wind farms. As well as mitigating disturbance during construction, and as experience from Scandinavia demonstrates, it is possible to increase submarine biodiversity through the establishment of artificial reefs around the base of turbines. And considering how fishing is ended around offshore wind parks, there can be benefits seen in the recovery of stocks as fish have undisturbed areas to spawn and grow. In addition to the harvesting of seafood, other ecosystem services might be built into offshore wind power design.

Oyster beds were once a prominent coastal feature worldwide. One of the services extensive oyster beds once provided was in relation to water quality. A single hectare of oyster reef, with a low density of just 30 oysters per square meter, can pump through their bodies each day water equivalent to about twenty Olympic swimming pools. Oysters can thus deliver significant benefits in areas where eutrophication is a problem, by consuming phytoplankton and in the process assisting in converting nitrogen to its inert state. Oyster beds are also an important nursery for juvenile fish, including for commercially significant species.

In the North Sea, especially the southern portion, where there fisheries are depleted and nitrogen enrichment is a major problem, would it not be sensible to establish new marine habitats that can help deal with both these challenges? Perhaps in relation to that particular technology it is time to show some imagination and leadership, and to move beyond the obsession with reducing impacts and into a period of maximizing opportunities.

Another area where renewable energy might contribute to enhanced biodiversity conservation is in relation to the management of broadleaved woodland for heating fuel. Coppice and pollard management of native woodlands could supply the growing popularity of wood burning stoves, while at the same time enabling many wildlife species to grow in number, including many woodland plants and insects. Steps toward the expansion of wood fuel from more traditional broadleaved woodland management could also stimulate the rural economy and create jobs.

Bioenergy can also be derived from, among other things, agricultural residues and food waste through anaerobic digestion (AD). This technology generates biogas that is then used for electricity generation and heat. Investment in renewable energy on farms could not only deliver low carbon energy, but also considerable benefits for nature, including through the treatment of animal wastes that might otherwise enter aquatic environments. AD also provides a source of organic fertilizer and thus offers the potential to improve the quality of agricultural soils.

In relation to tidal power there are alternatives to ecologically damaging estuary impoundments. For example, at least one company has worked on the idea of circular lagoons as an alternative to a dam so as to harness tidal energy in the Severn estuary. These would work from turbines embedded in the lagoon wall that would be turned by rising tide water, and then run again when the tide goes out. Located offshore, they would not cause direct damage to intertidal habitats as they could be stationed below the low water level.

Even in relation to run-of-river hydropower schemes that can cause serious negative impacts on riverine environments, and especially for fish, work in progress reveals a number of steps that can be taken to accommodate biodiversity conservation goals alongside those for clean energy generation. Various measures have been put in place to mitigate the ecological downsides of run-of-river hydropower installations, including fish pass facilities, establishment of environmental flows, fish-friendly turbine designs and screening of the hydropower off-take structures. There is still a lot to do, and more research needed, but again, by seeking win-wins rather than trade-offs it is possible to meet multiple objectives.

And while talking of multiple objectives is of course vital to register the social and economic dimensions of this discussion, in terms of for example job creation and having the reliable energy sources that are necessary to keep a modern economy like the UK’s humming along. These aspects will always be a core part of our energy choices, and that is fine so long as we can at the same time maintain some focus and to exploit the synergies between clean energy and conservation.

While a renewable energy revolution that works with nature and social and economic needs is clearly within our grasp, some, including on occasion Ministers, are apt to present what they call ‘tough choices’ and to seek direct trade-offs between them, for example in relation to the barrage proposed for the Severn, whereby climate change and economic goals have been set against conservation aims in a way that implies one must to a loser to the other. 

I believe it is most important that we as a community of environmental professionals resist such simplistic and false choices, and instead look for the meeting of multiple objectives, including those relating to climate change biodiversity conservation, landscape, energy security and jobs. Perhaps an impression of what we might be seeking to achieve can be summed up in two words; namely sustainable renewables.

While the terms ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’ are often used interchangeably, I think more clarity and nuance is required. Some genuinely renewable energy sources, when for example contributing to a decline in species or habitats of conservation concern, might not be deemed sustainable. It seems to me that this rather sums up the challenge at hand, and how we can best achieve not only more renewable energy, but also to ensure that it is sustainable. Can it be done? Well yes of course it can.

There is no one route to achieving that goal. A combination of different policies, effective planning rules, economic incentives, technology and research and experimentation are needed. With the correct blend though, I do believe we can do this, to have secure and clean energy while sustaining and indeed enhancing biodiversity. It seems to me that for environmentalists and ecologists this is right now one of the most important jobs at hand.