by Martin Odoni

I am sure there are fossilised remains of ancient bacteria on the planet Mars who are aware by now of Victoria Ayling’s little gaffe last week, in which she appeared to ask the most oxymoronic question yet in the current election campaign, of what is to be done if renewable energy runs out. A lot of us have had a big laugh over it, including me, but at the same time there has been something of a counter-attack from Ayling and her sympathisers, arguing that she was not guilty of a silly contradiction-in-terms, but of missing a word out of her sentence.

The sentence as spoken was, “What happens when renewable energy runs out?” which does indeed sound comically obtuse. Ayling and her defenders later clarified that what she had meant to say was, “What happens when renewable energy subsidies run out?” That certainly sounds a lot less paradoxical (although it does not make the slip of the tongue any less amusing, nor does it make people having a smile about it unacceptable; she is a politician after all, talking intelligibly is supposed to be her job). But, even were we to assume that that is genuinely what she meant – and I am not completely convinced by that for reasons I shall explain below – does it actually stop it being a silly question?

I would argue not. After all, what happens when any subsidy runs out? If the project being subsidised is showing signs of yielding good results, it will probably be renewed, and if it is not, it will simply be dropped.

There. Answered.

The question is a little like asking, “What do I do when I finish drinking this glass of water?” to which the answer would be, if you are no longer thirsty, you wash the glass and put it back in the cupboard, or if you are still thirsty, you refill the glass with more water and drink some more.

In the case of the renewable energy question, given that the local economy in Grimsby is gradually benefiting from fresh business and potentially significant numbers of new jobs, it is entirely possible that further subsidies will not even be needed when the current ones run out. I do not have access to precise information about it, so that should not be taken as read, but between the positive views of those close to the off-shore wind-farm projects, and comparing it to the slightly hysterical and obviously-erroneous rhetoric coming out of Ayling’s mouth, there is certainly no reason to expect the worst. For her part, Ayling seems to be trying to create a closed-ended fallacy; she is assuming that the renewables are only workable for so long as they are subsidised, and that it is a hugely difficult task for a Government to provide the subsidy.

But neither assumption is particularly certain. The first, that renewables only work for so long as they are subsidised, will be conditional on how wisely the subsidies are invested from the outset. If the money invested is spent on sound infrastructure and a skilled workforce, then eventually it will pay for itself, especially when the resulting new employment generates plenty of fresh activity for other local businesses; the signs on that score appear promising. Considerable infrastructure in the Grimsby area has already been built, and more is to follow. Whatever the power output ultimately offered by these sources, they will be a valuable source of employment for a long time to come.

The second assumption, that it is difficult to provide the subsidies, comes from the widely-held misapprehension that a Government’s money is ‘finite’, even when the Government itself is the issuer and the majority of money in circulation is electronic credit i.e. computer data that has no physical presence at all, and can be created or destroyed at a keystroke. Of course the Government can keep subsidising renewable energy, and with no great difficulty.

With UKIP’s inclination towards Climate-Change-Denialism, there is a genuinely sinister aspect in this. Ayling described renewable energy as a ‘fad’, which looked at some ways is another sentence that sounds preposterous. Wind, steam and running water had been used as power sources (albeit in mostly very primitive ways) for thousands of years before the Oil Industry ever existed, and the renewables industry is a direct descendant of that history. But less amusingly, there have long been links between the Climate Change Denialist groups and Big Oil, and the usually-flagrant misrepresentations made by Denialists of legitimate Climate Science lead back, more often than not, to the Oil Industry’s jealous determination to maintain the enormous profits that go hand-in-hand with society’s high fossil-fuel consumption.

While there are serious limitations on how much energy can come from, and how consistently energy can be provided by, wind and solar power, there is sufficient evidence that it can provide a cheap, clean alternative that will at least allow us to reduce our consumption of petroleum. To be clear, Ayling’s assertion that energy security cannot rely upon renewables is not exactly untrue, but it is a bit of a strawman argument, as the general case for renewables has never been that they can do everything that fossil fuels currently do, merely that they can help reduce our fossil fuel dependence. The reduction may not be as much as we would ultimately like, but that does not make it worthless; to argue against renewables on the basis that they cannot completely replace fossil fuels is to argue that drinking half a glass of water is the same as drinking nothing and dying of thirst. Ayling is, in effect, arguing that; –

Any solution that does not solve one hundred per cent of the problem is a complete failure.

But that sort of silly logic, of course, could be used against almost any policy that has ever been enacted by any Government in history. Anti-speeding laws and driving tests, for instance, have been introduced on our roads to prevent traffic accidents, but traffic accidents still happen, so should we get rid of traffic laws and driving licensing? Of course not, because the laws we have do reduce the number of accidents that take place, which still means more lives saved and fewer serious injuries occurring than would otherwise be the case. Murder has been outlawed for millennia, but murders still happen, so perhaps we should legalise murder? Similarly, medical practice laws are enforced to prevent doctors from mistreating their patients, and yet medical malpractice still sometimes occurs – just look at Harold Shipman. Should we therefore just not bother with medical practice laws at all? Ayling’s logic applied here would indicate that we should.

Ayling also tried the standard xenophobic-sounding ‘Look-out-we’re-wasting-taxpayer’s-money-on-making-jobs-for-foreigners‘ routine of the UKIP policy platform, by insisting that most of the renewable energy jobs are going to non-UK citizens. But information provided by RenewableUK showed that over ninety per cent of employees are British citizens.

So, even if we accept that Ayling’s mistake was not as obtuse as it sounded, she was still being silly and stubborn, and scaremongering more than dealing in genuine issues. The supposed slip-of-the-tongue remains quite a big ‘if’ anyway. Reading the general leanings of her remarks during these discussions, there does seem to be far more reference to renewable energy’s lack of power than to how much it needs subsidising. One notable quotation is the following; –

We will be back in the dark ages if we depend on renewables. We are spending a fortune paying for this fad which is not effective.

My conclusion is that Ayling did mean that renewables could run out when she made the notorious gaffe, but she meant it in the sense that there will be times when they will not provide enough energy to go around, and so the overall power available could run short temporarily, resulting in power cuts. That is a genuine concern, but then it is a concern for the uncomfortably-near future even if we carry on using fossil fuels at the same rate; power demand is constantly rising and fossil fuel sources are going down. The reason she switched tack to subsidies was probably because it just seemed easier to explain away her mistake that way.

So Ayling is not as foolish as the original quotation makes her sound. But one does not need to be that foolish to be a fool – only to be an outright imbecile.