COP26 and the Growth of Wind Power Series – Part 1 – Uniting to Tackle Climate Change
Brixton Windmill volunteer Ann Lee introduces a series on the past and future of wind-driven energy
This November sees the first United Nations summit on climate change to be hosted by the UK. The Conference of Parties (COP for short) is the foremost global forum addressing the goals of net-zero carbon and global warming limitation.
In 2015 a legally binding international treaty on climate change, known as the ‘Paris agreement’, was agreed by 196 parties at COP21 – a landmark in international agreement. Today, in the run-up to COP26 (scheduled to be held in Glasgow this November), there’s a ferment of discussion about ways to tackle climate change in all sectors of society, and create a safer and more sustainable world. These months are also seeing a move to integrate the recovery from Covid in the momentum to create greater resilience.
Wind energy old and new:
What part does renewable energy in general, and wind power in particular, play in all this? At Brixton Windmill, as we trace the story of wind energy and attempt to bring it alive for visitors, we are sometimes asked to compare our own 200-year-old mill with the majestic wind turbines of today. To do this, we need to look past their relative capacities and consider the place of each in their respective economies.
Why did the sails of Brixton Windmill, and other mills, stop turning in the 19th century, and is wind power now back for good? The first of these questions will be addressed in a later article in this series. The second is easier to answer. Wind power is thriving. In 2010, just 2.7% of electricity in Britain’s national grid was generated by wind (both onshore and offshore). For 2020 the figure was 24%. In the same period, use of the fossil fuels coal and natural gas almost halved, with the near disappearance of coal power accounting for most of the change. In contrast, the development of electric transport lagged behind. The government’s target is to end the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2030, but much of the infrastructure is yet to come.
The wind power revolution:
The growth of wind power is a remarkable story, and is echoed in many other parts of the world. In the USA President Biden’s administration has just given the go-ahead for a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts which will increase America’s offshore wind capacity by roughly 20 times – each turbine blade being larger than the wingspan of any airplane. In China, the wind farm at Gansu has 7000 turbines, making it the largest in the world – although the optimal size of windfarms has yet to be determined.
In the UK, while solar power has also been setting records, offshore wind is set to become the backbone of a transformed energy system, reaching every corner of our power supply, from industrial and domestic uses to fuelling the batteries of electric vehicles.
There is no doubt that the need to establish energy alternatives is acute. The Paris agreement of 2015 calls for a world in which average temperatures never climb to more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, and ideally no further than 1.5 degrees. Most COP countries have committed to steady progress towards net zero emissions – a state where the amount of greenhouse gas emitted is matched by the amount absorbed by carbon sinks.
As we work towards the holy grail of decarbonisation, and swap fossil fuels for renewable energy, some remarkable developments in the growth of wind power – far beyond what we might have expected 10 or 20 years ago – have given us cause for optimism. All this growth is not without problems, however: the financial, technical and storage issues are joined by those of finding suitable sites and supplying raw materials, such as copper, zinc and lithium, all of which depend on international agreement and cooperation. These will present major challenges to the participants in COP26. But recent global weather-related disasters have highlighted the tremendous urgency of the task.
How did we get to this point, and can we now harness the wind once more to play a vital part in the planet’s salvation? In this series of short articles leading up to COP26, we’ll be looking at these issues through the lens of the history of wind power, from the first mills of a 1000 or more years ago to the workhorses of the 18th and 19th century (such as Ashby’s Mill), and on to the massive turbines of today.
Next month we’ll be featuring some ancient mills of strange shapes and sizes that foreshadowed the shape of things to come.
– Read more about UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26)
Picture caption: Barrow Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea – one of the first in the UK. Photo by Andy Dingley