Once the province of cranks, green energy has grown up. Now it's a real business opportunity. Ian Wylie reports.
Thirty years ago last June, Tony Benn and his wife skimmed along the Thames on a hydrofoil from Tower Pier to BP's Isle of Grain refinery in Kent. On his arrival, the then Secretary of State for Energy opened a valve and the first trickle of North Sea oil came ashore. Holding up a bottle of crude oil, Benn declared: 'I hold the future of Britain in my hand.'
Just a few miles from the Isle of Grain, government ministers, energy companies and planners are again talking excitedly about the future of Britain. This time the energy source is not oil but wind - the pounds 1.5 billion construction of 270 turbines off the Kent coast. If planning permission is granted for the 'London Array', the world's biggest wind farm will be primed to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, supplying a quarter of the capital's needs.
Energy is the lifeblood of any developed economy, but alternatives to oil, gas and coal - so-called renewable energy sources such as wind and tide - have long been treated as a feeble joke, ringfenced for well-meaning but naive hairshirts and ethical investors.
Not any more. The London estuary venture is the latest sign that clean energy is coming of age as a serious business. Yes, it's an Anglo-Danish minnow, Core, that has submitted the plans, but the people stumping up the cash are energy giants Shell and E.On.
We're approaching the point of no return, says Peter Shortt, director of innovation and investment at the Carbon Trust, a quango that is busy investing pounds 1 million-pounds 2 million chunks of venture capital in renewable energy projects. 'Once building work begins on these massive offshore wind farms, we'll have reached the tipping point, the next step of very significant development.'
Wind energy is by far the most advanced form of renewable power in Britain.
There are more than a hundred wind farms and 1,200 wind turbines in the UK, the windiest country in Europe. Our coasts and hills are buffeted by enough wind to provide the nation's electricity needs three times over.
Opponents of onshore wind farms are increasingly vocal and it can take years to get planning permission. But, says the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), the offshore wind power market alone will be worth pounds 1 billion a year by 2020.
Wind is just one element. Pioneers of a range of forward-looking renewable energy technologies have propelled the recent surge in Alternative Investment Market (AIM) flotations: companies such as D1 Oils, which grows crops to make biodiesel, Ocean Power Delivery, a developer of offshore wave-powered electricity generators, fuel cell manufacturer Ceres Power, and Novera Energy, an Australian company that hopes to capture methane from rubbish tips and thermally process sewage sludge.
Never heard of them? That may be, but their executives and directors will be known to many - a new power generation of high-calibre managers with high-level experience of working for major corporates such as ICI, Shell, Ford, Alstom and DaimlerChrysler.
'We're meeting extremely professional individuals, typically with experience in related sectors,' says Bruce Jenkyn-Jones, investment director at Impax Asset Management. 'In the late 1990s, the last time this sector had a look, the quality of the management teams was weaker - idealistic people who wanted to save the planet. It's a much different scenario now.'
Only a couple of years ago, just a handful of ethical banks and funds would take calls from renewable energy start-ups. Now the City's bluest-chip banks, private equity houses and venture capitalists, such as Fidelity, Fleming, Nikko, New Star and Cazenove, have woken up to the market's promise.
Just how big is that potential? The government's target is 10% of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. …