April 2008

U.K. government faulted on power manufacturing

Energy policy is a matter of choices by governments, and ultimately, by the people.

Blessed with wind, surrounded by sea, Britain could be supplying Europe with green electricity. Take a boat out into the choppy waters off the North Wales coast, and you can see why. 

Thirty bright white turbines spin continuously just five miles off the coast, producing enough electrical power to supply 40,000 homes with clean, green energy.

The Texas-based technology exchange outfit RedOrbit reported the country is blessed. The wind and waves seem limitless and powerful. They are.

If the U.K. had been more aggressive and far-sighted in developing renewable energy, the country would already be exporting green electricity and wind turbines to Europe and beyond.

In renewable energy terms, the country would be the Saudi Arabia of Europe. A full 40% of the continent's wind blows across British shores, enough to meet all its energy needs and more.

Instead of leading the world in renewable energy and at the same time cutting carbon emissions, the U.K. languishes close to the bottom of the European clean energy league.

Just 2% of Britain's energy comes from renewable sources and the rest from dirty, climate-changing fossil fuels. This is the legacy of years of contradictory policies, conflicting priorities, and government incompetence.

For instance, the government's Low Carbon Buildings Program started in 2006 to provide grants to householders wanting to install renewable generation technologies.

The government acknowledged micro-generation could play a big part in a clean energy future and turning homes into mini power stations is good for energy security, household income, and the environment.

Instead of kick starting a whole new market sector, the government starved it of funds. It allocated $25.4 million (£12.7 million) with a monthly cap. On the first day of each month, people snapped up all the available grants within hours.

This stop-start approach led to frustrated householders and cash-strapped solar installation companies, many of which began to go bust. For electricity, the U.K. managed to put only 270 solar panels on British roofs last year, while Germany installed 130,000.

Germany's renewable sector has rocketed, thanks to a system that guarantees long-term paybacks at above-market rates for cleanly generated power.

It is the "feed-in tariff," which has also successfully catapulted Spain and Portugal to the top of the European clean energy league. Portugal gets 39% of its electricity from renewable sources and is aiming for 60% by 2020.