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The falling costs of offshore wind: A fairy tale for the low-carbon fireside

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ONCE upon a time, not so long ago, in an island you might have visited, there was a Kingdom that was very ordinary in all sorts of ways, being not very wet and not very dry, and not very big and not very small, and so on, and it was ruled by a Government that was even more ordinary in all sorts of ways, which we won’t go into because it’s boring as well as embarrassing. Indeed, all this ordinariness was very depressing to the Government, who had once been Almost Quite Special, briefly and really by accident because one day while digging the garden it found some buried treasure and got stupendously rich. But the money hadn’t lasted very long, and everyone else in the world had found buried treasure too, so now the Kingdom and its Government were back to being ordinary. But the Government had really liked being Special and it wanted to be special again so it could show off when all the Governments got together for a feast and a chat about how stupid and silly ordinary people were and how they needed be governed and generally made to pull up their socks.

So the Government of this Kingdom said all sorts of encouraging things about the country’s best days lying ahead, and sunlit uplands, and accelerating growth, and levelling up, and how they could be the envy of the world, if they weren’t already, and very special again. But the peasants and the tradespeople of the Kingdom just weren’t that interested in being special, and in fact they rather liked being ordinary, provided they were left alone, which was very frustrating for the Government, who said sternly that they lacked Ambition.

So one day, after trying practically every possible way to make the Kingdom and the Government look special, like adding up numbers and counting money, at which it was really quite good but not Head-Shoulders-Above-Every-One-Else-Special, and playing football, at which it was intermittently talented but not outstanding, and singing and dancing, at which it was occasionally nearly as entertaining as it thought it was, and telling stories, at which it was within an inch of being Really Special, and making stuff, at which it was not too bad but unfortunately nowhere near as good as it once had been, the Government sat on its throne in the castle and sighed a deep sigh: ‘Oh deary me!’ said the Government, ‘how are we going to be Really Special, so that I can hold my head up at the next Inter-Governmental Boasting Tournament?’ And the Government gave a great long wheezing, whistling, groaning sigh, like all the air coming out of a pig’s bladder. ‘Oooh’, said the Government, sitting up suddenly on its throne, ‘That gives me an idea. Let’s show all the other governments how special we are by ridding the Kingdom of the wicked dragon called CO2, who is definitely breathing fire and making us all very hot, and must be around here somewhere though I can’t see him or smell him. I don’t believe that anyone else has thought of that before.’

So the Government blew its own trumpet, which it was always doing actually, and told the assembled masses that the time had come to banish the Wicked CO2 for being wicked and breathing fire and making everybody hot. ‘Ooh,’ said the government’s courtiers, jumping up and down and clapping their soft white hands in excitement, ‘that would be a great idea, particularly if we are paid to help.’ ‘Hmmm,’ said the courtiers’ courtiers, stroking their hairy chins, ‘that would be a super idea, particularly if we are paid to help.’

The peasants and tradespeople weren’t quite as keen, partly because the Wicked CO2 had never been much of a nuisance, and partly because they had a shrewd suspicion that if someone had to get out of bed very early to do the banishing of CO2 it would be them, as usual, but mostly because they were so busy trying to put dinner on the table and buy shoes for their children while also paying their taxes, which were quite high, that they didn’t listen as carefully as they should have done to what the Government was talking about.

So when the Government asked the peasants and tradespeople for their opinions, which it sometimes did because governments like to have someone else to blame when things go wrong, the peasants and tradespeople found it all boring beyond belief, and since they wanted a quiet life and not to be bothered every five minutes, they said that banishing the Wicked CO2 would be all right so long as the government didn’t make it any harder to put dinner on the table and shoes on their children’s feet, and taxes didn’t rise.

Perish the thought!’, said the Government, and went away to give the tax rises odd names that people wouldn’t recognise and to place orders for cheap food and shoes from Kingdoms that not only didn’t want to rid themselves of their own Wicked CO2 but were in fact quite happy to give industrial asylum to the Wicked CO2 that the Government was banishing.

So, more or less everyone was happy, including the Wicked CO2, because it had a new home and nice new friends speaking interesting languages, and meanwhile the Government and its courtiers and the courtiers’ courtiers built a lot of rather expensive windmills all over the Kingdom to stop the Wicked CO2 coming back, which was an odd way of stopping it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t very much wind on the Kingdom’s land and there were a lot of people who didn’t like the windmills and thought they were at least as nasty as the Wicked CO2 itself and possibly more so.

So the government and its courtiers, not to mention the courtiers’ courtiers, who were doing quite nicely out of all this, built some even bigger windmills in the sea where there was more wind but fewer people, which was good, but also rather a lot of extremely stormy and salty water, which was bad because it made it even more expensive to build the windmills and very difficult to mend them when they broke, which they did quite a lot, because the sea, though not downright evil, like the Wicked CO2, is very ‘cruel’ and tends to bend things and make them go rusty and generally fall to bits before you can say ‘Lloyd’s of London’.

‘Oh dear,’ said the Government, ‘this is all looking very expensive, and taxes will have to go up, whatever funny names we give them, and the peasants and the tradespeople may get angry, and they are already pretty crotchety about taxes at the best of times.’

So the courtiers and the courtiers’ courtiers got into a huddle and after a lot of head-scratching they had a really clever idea. They said to the Government, ‘Why don’t you tell the peasants and the tradespeople that while the windmills in the sea look as if they are rather expensive they are really getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and it is all very worthwhile, especially since it keeps the Wicked CO2 away.’

‘Is that strictly speaking true?’ said the Government, ‘I mean the bit about the windmills getting cheaper?’

‘If we say it’s true would you believe us?’, said the courtiers and the courtiers’ courtiers, raising their eyebrows in a peculiar way.

‘Oh . . .  I see,’ said the Government, who was a bit slow on the uptake sometimes, ‘yes, I suppose if you say it loud enough and long enough and write me any number of IOUs promising to be very cheap tomorrow, or the day after, I think I would believe all that. And it will make me look Very Special Indeed.’ And I’m sorry to say that the Government was right about that last bit, though not in a good way.

So the courtiers and the courtiers’ courtiers, and quite a lot of other idlers who didn’t want to get left out of what seemed likely to be a very good party, all got together. Half of them started shouting about the cost of windmills in the sea falling and falling and falling, and the other half began frantically scribbling IOUs that promised the windmills would be cheap tomorrow or at least the day after tomorrow, or next week at the latest, maybe, and the government pulled a very wise and very believing face and said the windmills in the sea were all worthwhile and would banish the Wicked CO2 without forcing the peasants and tradespeople to go barefoot and hungry and pay higher taxes.

Now, this would have been the end of the story except that some rather naughty boys decided to make mischief by looking at the Kingdom’s great big leather-bound account books to see if the banishing of the Wicked CO2 really was as Special as the Government said it was. They sneaked into the Government’s castle, and also into the counting houses of the courtiers, and especially into the offices of the courtiers’ courtiers, who were the ones that wrote everything down so they could gloat over it, because that is the kind of people they were.

Now, as soon as the little boys looked in the big leather-bound books they could see that an awful lot of gold was being spent on building windmills in the sea, as well as on the land, and that far from getting cheaper they actually seemed to be getting even more expensive. That sent the naughty boys into fits of giggles and peals of laughter, because although they were naughty and disrespectful they did have a sense of humour, and they started telling everyone, including all the peasants and the tradespeople, that from what they could see in the big leather-bound books the windmills in the sea were still mind-bogglingly expensive to build and mend, and the IOUs promising to be subsidy-free tomorrow, or sometime quite soon, perhaps, could be put to a very ignoble purpose for all that they were worth, and that it wouldn’t be long before everyone was starving and practically naked and falling behind on their taxes.

The Government thought this was very rude, as well as inconvenient, and refused to even look at the little boys, but said out of the corner of its mouth, ‘This isn’t working out as I expected . . . what are we going to do?’

‘No problem’, said the courtiers, ‘We’ll get some reliable chaps at the Imperial College Centre for Environmental Policy to publish a study in Nature Energy and swear upon their honour that they believe the IOUs, and that we should all have faith in the windmills in the sea and believe they really are getting cheaper, in spite of what the big leather-bound books say. And because it is written by Imperial College and published by Nature Energy, lots of people will trust it rather than the rude little boys, especially if they don’t know much about Imperial College and Nature Energy.’

‘Sounds like a plan!’ said the Government.

So that is what they did, and the paper was called ‘Offshore wind competitiveness in mature markets without subsidy’,  which was a bit of a mouthful but looked really important and gave the Government the chance of announcing for the thousandth time that the windmills in the sea were a great shining white barrier of virtue keeping the Wicked CO2 out of the Kingdom, though this was actually beginning to wear a bit thin and some people, and not just the naughty little boys this time, were even beginning to say that the Wicked CO2 was really sneaking past the windmills in the sea and back into the country on board container ships, cunningly disguised as shoes and food and cheap flat-screen televisions. But since most people wanted those useful things and didn’t care much about the Wicked CO2 anyway they didn’t make a fuss about it.

But I’m afraid that the little boys, who did know quite a bit about Imperial College and Nature Energy, just laughed even louder and even more rudely when they saw the paper called ‘Offshore wind competitiveness’ etc etc etc, and went on saying that it wouldn’t be long before the peasants and tradespeople were on their uppers and eating nettles, albeit with nice flat-screen televisions to watch if the wind was blowing. 

And that, children, is where we are going to have to stop, not because the story comes to an end but because it doesn’t. The rude little boys are still being rude and laughing like drains at what they find in the big leather-bound books, the Government is still refusing to look in their direction, the courtiers and the courtiers’ courtiers are still busy counting their money, as well as that of other people, and the Wicked CO2 is still far from banished and is actually walking about the Kingdom quite openly and without fear of arrest, because although everyone knows he’s there, even the Imperial College Centre for Environmental Policy, practically nobody except the rude little boys can be bothered to point it out.

I suppose you could say they’re all living ‘happily’. Whether they live happily ‘ever after’ and how long ‘ever after’ might be something that only time will tell, and not the humble and slightly jaded narrator of this fairy story, who really needs to get back to work or he will quickly find that his family are hungry and his feet are getting wet and there’s nothing in the piggy bank to pay his taxes.

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Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen is a pseudonym.

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