By Schoon, Nicholas
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4626
The present status of British renewable energy can be summed up in one word: "chickenshit". Last year, renewables supplied under 3 per cent of the electricity consumed in the UK. Most of it came from long-established hydroelectric plants in Scotland rather than from "new generation" renewables such as wind turbines. And when you consider that electricity meets less than a fifth of our total energy requirements, renewables then account for only about 0.5 per cent. We also compare poorly with our European neighbours. Spain gets 17 per cent of its electricity from renewables while the European Union average is 14 per cent.
Chicken shit itself, however, has more optimistic associations. Britain is a world leader in using the heat from burning poultry excrement to generate electricity. A UK-based company has built three power plants, with state backing, that burn the waste collected from miles around, making enough power for a city the size of Nottingham. With similar plants being built overseas, this is an exciting development in an otherwise uninspiring field.
Renewable energy technology has been talked up since the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur war 30 years ago. Oil and gas reserves will dwindle in the first half of this century, making these staple fuels increasingly expensive (Britain is about to move from being an exporter of gas, our single most important fuel, to an importer). And the reserves are increasingly concentrated in faraway, potentially unstable places.
Coal could supply our energy for much longer, but it produces even more of the carbon dioxide that warms the earth's atmosphere than gas. Even if we ignore global warming -- which is what the great majority of both rich and poor nations do -- fossil fuels also remain the main cause of air pollution. Although Britain has been tackling this pollution for decades, it still shortens thousands of lives each year.
So there have long been good reasons to favour a rapid expansion in renewables. The government now spends a lot of time and energy telling us about its pro-renewables policy. Why, then, in a country blessed with renewable energy resources such as stiff breezes, huge tidal ranges and powerful waves, are we such laggards in developing this potential?
One reason is that Britain lacks the easiest ways of harnessing renewable energy. We are short of serious mountain ranges, reducing the opportunity for hydroelectricity generated by rivers descending from great heights, and the simple rooftop solar water heaters used in many Mediterranean countries are still a great rarity in cloudy Britain.
Successive governments have failed to help renewables compete with fossil fuels -- by, for example, taxing them at a level that reflects the damage to people and the environment. The energy levy on business is a start, but it inevitably faces resistance from consumers and producers.
As renewable technologies are developed, reliability increases and price comes down. Wind farms in Britain s windiest areas can already compete with fossil fuel-generated electricity without subsidy--which is why they are the fastest growing source of renewable energy. For more than 20 years, however, Britain's energy policies have favoured open markets, minimal state intervention and the cheapest possible prices (petrol and diesel apart). Within that context, fossil fuels, which enjoy established markets, infrastructure and scale, are bound to win.
The lion's share of government backing for non-fossil fuel energy has always been with nuclear power, which is now pretty well bankrupt. Even if there is no further investment to replace those nuclear power stations closing down over the next 20 years -- and advocates of renewable energy, which competes for taxpayers' money with nuclear power must hope there is not--substantial sums will be needed to deal with their radioactive aftermath.
But all is not lost. …