By Ashley, Jackie
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 130, No. 4542
Peter Hain's five brief months in the Department of Trade and Industry, after being moved sideways from the Foreign Office (for disloyalty, according to some commentators), certainly made a difference. "What I've done is push the whole renewable energy policy area right up the political agenda," he declares. He claims that there is now "real enthusiasm" in the industry, among non-governmental organisations and in the green movement about the way he has raised the profile of this issue.
Modesty has never been Hain's strong point -- but he is right. Since the days when he used to invade cricket pitches to campaign against apartheid, he has always had a keen eye for publicity, and suddenly, as never before, the newspapers were full of features about the new minister of state in the Department of Trade and Industry who was championing greener energy.
Hain was interested in the subject long before he moved to the energy portfolio. He describes himself as a "green socialist" -- yes, definitely still a socialist, but one who has always tried to push the environmental agenda. The problem, I suggest, is that many socialists, and indeed this Labour government, have always been a bit sniffy about the environment, considering it the preserve of bearded, sandal-wearing liberals.
"Labourism has historically been about producerism rather than environmentalism," Hain admits, though he points out that "if you go back to the roots of the Labour movement, our socialist forefathers, like William Morris and Robert Owen, they were very green...so there's a lot in our roots with a strong environmental perspective".
So what, exactly, has Hain done since taking charge of the UK's policy on renewables? For a start, he has announced a package of direct support -- more than [pound]260m for renewable energy over the next three years. That includes more than [pound]l00m for offshore wind and energy crops, [pound]100m for green energy projects, [pound]10m for solar energy and more than [pound]50m for research and development. In addition to all this, Hain cites what he calls "a powerful driver", namely the Renewables Obligation, which will come into force in October and will require all electricity suppliers to be getting at least 10 per cent of their power from renewable generators by 2010. That will provide an assured market for renewables lasting right through until 2026, so that investment can take place at a faster pace and on a larger scale. There is nothing like the promise of money to get business involved.
Doubts have been raised as to whether the electricity suppliers will be able to meet the Renewables Obligation, but Ham insists that they will, partly because the it will create "a market of a billion pounds a year" by stimulating the demand for green power. The catch is that it will have to be subsidised by every electricity consumer, in the form of higher prices to the tune of about 20p a week.
Won't that create a public outcry? Han believes not: "I think 20p a week is pretty cheap at the price for green energy, for environmental reasons." The public will come on board, he maintains, because it will mean that "the choice isn't between a gigantic new power station near you or the lights go out. It will become supporting either a wind farm or panels on your roof, or growing energy crops (biomass projects) for subsequent burning in a power station." According to Hain, "the market will determine which is the most efficient and competitive renewables supplier".
At present, wind power has the lead over other sources of renewable energy, with the government pushing for rapid development of offshore wind farms. So far, 18 proposed developments are in the planning stage and are already attracting substantial investment. The problem, as with many forms of new technology, is that there are loud objections where proposed wind-power projects are to be sited.
"It's part of my job," Hain insists, "to combat the contagious disease of nimbyism. …