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How will we meet our energy needs in the future?
Concentration is key
[27-Feb-2002]
'If we wish to return to renewable energy, we will have to reindustrialise the landscape.'
Matt Ridley
author of Genome and other books about science and the environment
There is one issue that rarely gets considered by the enthusiasts for renewable energy, and that is its appetite for land. A thousand years ago, energy generation was distributed across the landscape - in windmills, dams and coppiced woodland. The advent of fossil fuels allowed energy generation to become concentrated at point sources: mines and power stations.

The same happened to other essentials that were once grown and are now at least partly manufactured: transport (horses to cars), textiles (wool to synthetic fleece), building material (timber to concrete), and so on. Even food production is shifting to increasing concentration on the most productive, irrigated land. This trend has been on the whole good news for the environment, as it took the pressure off the landscape. Had we not concentrated production, we would have used more wild land. As it is, our rivers are undammed, our woods no longer managed for timber production and our skylines no longer broken by windmills. One power station every 100 miles is a small price to pay for these benefits.

If we wish to return to renewable energy, we will have to reindustrialise the landscape. Dams, wind farms, tidal barrages, wave generators and solar-panel farms inevitably demand very large acreages because the density of energy in the wind, the Sun, the tide or the waves is so low compared with that in fossil fuels or uranium nuclei. Some renewable power can be generated in urban landscapes and on land used for other purposes, such as the roofs of houses, but the bulk will have to be in rural areas. Estuaries, fast-flowing rivers and windswept moors are some of the most precious and appreciated ecosystems. We need to be very careful before losing the ecological benefits of point-source power generation.

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Malcolm Grimston
senior research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs
Tom Kearney
vice president, external affairs at Shell Renewables
John Lawton
chief executive, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Commissioned responses
Joe Kaplinsky
Matt Ridley
Jennie Bristow
Dr Dave Elliott
Reader responses
View the list of responses

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