Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: My eco-vision may be coming true (even if business benefits)

Sign of the times: Ewes and lambs graze between solar panels at an East Anglian solar farm. Pictur

Sign of the times: Ewes and lambs graze between solar panels at an East Anglian solar farm. Picture: JAMES BASS - Credit: Eastern Daily Press � 2014

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of good news but good news nonetheless. For a whole 24 hours one day last year, and for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, Britain used no coal power whatsoever.

I felt compelled to track this item down because at first I didn’t believe I had heard it.

I learned that reductions in use of coal-fired power stations, along with overproduction of power generated by wind farms, had produced this happy turn of events.

The bad news, I later discovered, is the scandalous fact that our new wind farms were paid over £100m last year for those occasions when they were turned off.

This equated to roughly £2m per week trousered by the energy firms that own them. I feel sure, now news has broken, that, even as I write, the matter is being addressed. It remains good news, though, because the UK may soon produce most, or even all, of our electricity through natural or “sustainable” sources.


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During the early 1980s, when I was in my 20s and still possessed of a romantic optimism not yet corroded by actual experience, I had a mantra I’d repeat. It went something like this: “We’re a small island, constantly battered by waves, riven by wind and blessed, if only for a few months each year, with a quantity of strong sunlight. Why, therefore, are we not harnessing these three wild horses to pull our chariots, run our machinery and heat our homes?”

The smug, middle-aged voice of business experience answered me through a customary haze of cigar smoke and whisky fumes: “Wind, wave and solar power are uneconomical. It will never work.”

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I then learnt that our rulers had spent about £1m at the turn of the 1980s assuring us all that nuclear power was the only game in town.

This amount of money, I also discovered, was equal to that which they’d spent during the preceding 25 years on combined research and development for wind, wave and solar power.

Although I may have thought of myself at this time as something of an eco-futurist, the feeling which I gleaned from my exchanges with such people was that they regarded me as a dipsy long-haired hippie – and furthermore, could I go away now please? Almost 40 years later, our captains of industry and sundry other pan-handlers are stampeding over me to get to a future their fathers swore would never happen.

Naturally, someone is making a big profit out of all this sustainability or it simply wouldn’t be sustainable – not as a business model anyway. So, with all the alertness of a whipped cur, I look around me and listen. All I hear lately is talk of electric cars, windmills, solar panels, low-tech miracles and, that word again: sustainability. The prices of electric bikes and scooters are coming down. LED lights and USB-powered gizmos of all kinds are hitting the market.

And finally? Finally, one by one, the future begins to prise the past’s bony fingers off the poisonous, rusty old Oil-drum Economy. Plastic will be next. It has to be, because no less a power than China has informed us that they’ll no longer reprocess our plastic waste for us .

Not only that but I hear the Chinese are planting themselves a massive forest the size of Ireland. Follow that one, preachy old western Arcadia.

The world is waking up and, wars notwithstanding, may finally be dragging its sclerotic old corpse out of the Oil Age.

I doubt if we’ll be exchanging contracts during my lifetime but nothing was happening whatsoever during my youth.

When I read in the newspapers that, apparently, veganism is the latest thing, I know that something seismically twee is happening.

I was vegetarian-by-default for over two decades. I was brought up to eat what was put in front of me, so when I lived with vegetarians I ate likewise.

I’m unsure if veganism will take off with the success that vegetarianism has, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Following David Attenborough’s documentary, I’ve noticed that quite a number of people are now less keen to ingest plastic particles with their seafood. It’s my guess, however, that it will be business people driving the new eco-economy, while most of the old hippie originators remain on the sidelines, clapping half-heartedly.

After all, it’s already happened with the £300-a-ticket summer music events; or “free festivals”, as we once called them. No such thing as a free lunch, Maan. Not even a vegan one.

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