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Energy Politics – Wind Power Politics and Policy

The wind power industry, as the most commercially viable form of utility-scale renewable energy, has experienced more than ten-fold growth in total installed capacity over the past decade. Yet, installed wind power capacity still accounts for less than two per cent of global electricity-generation capacity, despite the prevalence of studies indicating that, in certain situations, wind power can be a cheaper resource of electricity than most fossil fuels. Dr Scott VALENTINE, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Policy, researches this conundrum of the wind power development policy community with his current publication Wind Power Politics and Policy, published by Oxford University Press.

"To understand why a phenomenon occurs under certain political contexts is like a crime scene investigation," Dr Valentine said with a broad smile on his face. "You have to look for every clue, understand the motives of the parties involved and try to gain some insight into how context influences a given outcome." Wind Power Politics and Policy is the result of his "crime scene investigations" on wind power development; it includes case studies on a number of countries or regions such as Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Canada, the US, and China. The book begins by considering a simple question: Given the global imperative to facilitate an expedient transition away from CO2-intensive energy technologies and the commercial viability of wind power, what is stopping the wind power industry from capturing higher market shares around the world?

In our interview, Dr Valentine cited Japan and Taiwan as examples of how context influences outcomes. In both cases, installed wind power capacity is negligible. "Wind power should be more prominent in these two places, but contextual hurdles impede development," he said. "In Taiwan, the government struggles with how costs should be distributed in order to provide the transmission and distribution lines to permit the establishment of wind power installations on the east coast to meet the demand from cities on the west coast. On the other hand, in Japan, the nation's electric supply is managed by privately owned utility providers who are extremely reluctant to cooperate to balance power loads."

Economic factors hinder wind power development, but not for the reasons one suspects. "It is certainly true that economic factors play a role in hindering wind power development but not because wind power is more expensive. When energy costs are calculated, they seldom include all the costs. Calculating the cost of generating electricity is just part of the cost consideration. There are other costs of energy that go far beyond the monthly bills typically paid by the government or the public." He cited the nuclear power from the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant to illustrate the point. "The government contends that nuclear power from the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant is attractive because it is cheap. It might indeed be cheap to generate nuclear power, but the cost of generation itself is not the only thing to be considered. Moreover, there is the enhanced risk associated with using nuclear power. Therefore, citizens themselves shoulder the risk. These unaccounted-for costs are what make the nuclear electricity appear cheap."

Apart from the economic concern, Dr Valentine added another perspective on barriers to wind power. "Political decisions tend to be 'path-dependent'. Politicians prefer the status quo. They want to make safe decisions. Change is frightening and politically risky. Change is also expensive and upsets people who have benefitted from the status quo. It is much easier for politicians to simply stay the course, even if that course is not optimal for a given nation in the long run."

"The irrationality of supporting nuclear power in Japan exemplifies the power of path dependency," he added, citing insights from his previous book The National Politics of Nuclear Power. "The government sank billions into nuclear power research. It subsidised the creation of the world's third largest fleet of nuclear reactors on a tectonically active island and it insulated this regime from public and political scrutiny. Prior to Fukushima, there were a number of minor incidents involving Japan's reactor fleet, yet the government consistently downplayed the threat. The technocrats guiding government policy believed that they could anticipate all dangers and design facilities that were perfectly safe. They simply closed their eyes to the threat … and the true costs."

Overall, the research that Dr Valentine presents in Wind Power Politics and Policy is cross-disciplinary. He demonstrates that wind power diffusion is hindered by of social (including environmental), technical, economic, and political (STEP) influences. "In places as diverse as Germany, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, there are numerous examples of citizens blocking wind power installations out of fear of the systems degrading their communities. Yet, when the installations are in place, people are generally far more positive."

With his primary areas of research including energy policy, environmental innovation, and corporate environmental management, Dr Valentine offers courses to students in the School of Energy and Environment in addition to his work within the Department of Public Policy. "Technology is wonderful in that it allows human beings to live advanced lives. But technology also carries risks and gives rise to external costs. It is not enough to simply choose the most efficient technology. We must choose technologies that elevate social, environmental, and economic conditions for all. This starts by endeavouring to understand why inefficient technologies endure and how to manage development in a way to ensure that the decisions made are in the best interests of the majority of citizens, not just the handful that happen to enjoy political or economic power."