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01/07/2021

Louise Brooke-Smith: The yin and the yang of the renewables revolution

For those who have even the slightest Buddhist leanings, yin and yang will have some resonance. For everyone else, the edict of ‘for every positive, there’s a negative’ might ring louder bells.

3-minute read

Consequences are inevitable when there is change, whether change to the ever-moving feast that is planning policy, statute and regulations, or simply attitudes and trends. They are even more apparent when there are technological breakthroughs and changes in how we live, work and play.

When all of these collide, as they appear to have done as an outcome of the pandemic, the benefits can be fabulous. I cite the emergence of a vaccine in a matter of months; the adoption of a national green mindset, acceptance that mental health isn’t something to hide under the carpet and that you don’t have to be chained to a desk in the city to be productive.

But while we are seeing many positives, the practical outcomes that follow big changes need to be carefully managed to avoid complications, unintended consequences and confusion.

Let’s look at the enthusiasm for renewable energy. Almost everyone appears to think this is a positive and long-awaited move and good for us and the environment. If you ignore the political blip that meant that the taxable benefits of creating solar farms across the countryside were placed in a state of disarray for a few years, then even the government seems to have now got its act together and there is genuine support for all things green.

Wind farms are raising their sails across land and sea, tidal barrages are being constructed, helping to remove those unsightly mud flats and creating much sought-after ‘waterfront locations’ and even biogas plants seem to be accepted by local parish councils who are presenting themselves as ‘totally with the green agenda’. So, it’s all rosy.

But we’ve been here before with big socio-economic changes. Granted, the decision by a certain female prime minister to topple unions and close pits was less to do with technological change and more political dogma, but remember the impact on the coalfields, pit towns and iron and steel plants? Those monotown economies ran huge risks and many succumbed to desolation, with massive unemployment.

“Practical outcomes that follow major changes need to be carefully managed”

The move away from fossil fuels will hit the Middle East and the oilfields of Texas, but also our own oil-centred towns. The petrochemical and fossil fuel industries with their huge ports and depots will need to look to new uses. The same applies to petrol stations, which will go when electric charging is possible anywhere on the grid system.

Retail outlets and leisure facilities will lure us into parking areas with cheap or free electricity for our Teslas, while we watch a film or shop. And all those petrol filling stations can be repurposed for anything the next imaginative round of PDRs thinks up. I’m sure there are inventive architects who could squeeze at least six or seven two-bedroom units around those leaded and diesel pumps and have them as features in the corner of the room. If we can turn offices, barns and warehouses into liveable space, then transforming underground fuel tanks should be easy.

At the moment, the upside of the fast-paced adoption of renewable energy is clear. Creating renewable industries and constructing swathes of battery plants across the country are to the fore at every switched-on local authority. They get that we will all need the appropriate battery packs to keep our motors running and our smart cities will need the electrical wizardry to keep us powered. So, provided we don’t put all our eggs into one basket and become entirely dependent on a single electro-industry, then the yin and yang of the renewable revolution will be a happy and balanced one.

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration credit | Zara Picken

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