Science in Society Archive

The Politics of Green Energy

Rt. Hon Michael Meacher MP, former environment minister tells how UK is struggling to shift towards renewable energies, and what the Government must do to get there, easily

I want to start by paying tribute to The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) for Science in Society magazine, which I think in terms of that very important interface between science, the environment and politics it fills magnificently well.  I’m sure it’s done on a shoestring budget, but the result is really remarkable, and every time it reaches me, I know I’ve got a very good read.

What are the barriers to green energy?

What is it where Sweden is 41 percent, Finland is 29 percent, Denmark is 17 percent, France is 10 percent, Germany 6 percent, and UK 1 percent?  We all know what we are talking about - the degree of utilization of renewables for energy in general, and for electricity in particular.  I will talk about where we are very briefly, what the barriers are and how we should try to overcome them.  What are the barriers? 

No money

First of all money, but of course money is a barrier to many good things.  The fact is that the Government did start a low carbon building programme in 2006.  It opened at 10 am and by half past noon; the 12.7 million was entirely exhausted.  As McEnroe would say, “You cannot be serious!”

There were 100 grants given for groundswell heat pumps, and the next year there were none at all. For solar panels there were 270 grants in 2007.  Just look at that 270; in Germany there were 130 000 in the same year, nearly 500 times. There is one main reason for that: feed-in tariffs.  Portugal, Spain, Germany and many other countries have used these extensively.  Portugal is now at about 40 percent of electricity from renewable sources expected at 60 percent at 2020.  In the UK we are at 4 percent and we will be very lucky to reach a target of 15 percent by 2020.

No domestic market

The second reason for poor uptake of renewables is that there is no domestic market. We have a great wind resource here in the UK simply because 250 000 years ago, we became an island as the result of two enormous floods and we are surrounded by sea water which is pretty choppy and pretty windy.  Anyone who has stood on the end of piers at party conferences and nearly got blown off them would know.

The fact is however, that the domestic market for renewables doesn’t exist.  The British Wind Power Association will tell you that they can generate at least a quarter of electricity by 2020 and we are now at 1.5 percent.  I complain as bitterly as anyone when Vestas (the wind turbine factory) moved out of the Isle of Wight and went off to America.  But I have to admit there was a perfectly sane commercial reason for doing so because there is a big domestic market in the United States.  We don’t often hear about it, but Texas, of all places, and North and South Dakota have enough wind power to produce enough electricity for the whole of the US, which is a staggering thought.  There is a huge market there, but here the potential is enormous and we have hardly taken it up at all.

No planning

The third reason is planning.  It may surprise you to know that, and it staggered me to know that there are 220 wind projects currently stuck in planning. If all of those were approved, it would provide about 9.3 Gigawatts of electricity.  That is about one seventh of the total UK requirement and rather interestingly, it about equals the output of the ten or eleven nuclear power stations that the Government is planning instead.  The fact is that it can take nearly ten years to get approval for a wind farm and another five years in addition to that to get connection to the grid.  Again, “You cannot be serious!”

The Government, of course, has proposed changes to the system, which I and a number of others have objected to, and I’ll explain why in a moment.  Namely to have national planning statements and infrastructure planning commissions to decide without regard to what the locals might think, or anything else we go ahead with this.  Well you might say in terms of wind farms that’s not a bad idea.  The trouble with this is, of course, that it also includes motorways, powerstations, airports, incinerators and all the lot.  And, it just doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Government that we might be able to transform the planning system for renewables only.  That would be a wonderful thought, but it just hasn’t happened.

Surrounded by waves but still no tidal power

The fourth point I would like to make is with regard to tidal power.  In terms of wave and tidal power, we are surrounded by the sea.  We have 30 marine technology developers headquartered in our country.  When I say that there are only 15 in the whole of the rest of the EU, which numbers half a billion people, we have it all centred here, which is exactly what you would expect; and we have the world’s first commercial scale wave generating array.  It was built in this country, and where is it being pioneered, where is it being tried out? In Portugal. 

The fact is that we could generate 20 percent of our electricity from wave and tidal power.  We could generate certainly a further 40 percent from offshore and onshore power.  We could certainly lead the world in a new manufacturing sector, which in terms of our recession could create thousands of jobs far more than any building of any nuclear reactors. And we could have a zero carbon electricity grid by 2020.

Where’s the money for renewables?

Ok.  I can hear the questions coming - what about the money? Well, I wouldn’t be so rude as to suggest that some of the £140 billion, which we paid to the Banks, that’s about 10 percent of our GNP. If we got a small fraction of that we could do a hell of a lot in terms of renewables.  That’s the imbalance of it.  And, if you think that’s a bit extravagant because the Banks are terribly nice and we need them, then let me just say that the Mox Plant, which I bitterly resisted, and that’s probably one of the several reasons for my removal; there are several others, of which GM is certainly quite a big one.  But whatever the reason, the Mox Plant in Cumbria, which was designed to reuse spent nuclear fuel by re-processing it for a second round of burning, supposed to be the great new answer for virtually costless energy. I asked the question about six months ago after it had been in operation for eight years: it cost £350 million, and was intended to produce 120 tonnes of Mox fuel; but at the end of the eight years produced only six tonnes. That project cost £470 million in total, which could have been money rather better spent.

World’s first Carbon Budget Bill

However, let me say that things are getting better because they have to.  It is very good when you are a Government MP and you get to praise your own side, which I occasionally do and it really wrong foots them when I do. But it is important to give credit where credit is due.  And, credit is due over this question of carbon budget.  This is the world’s first Government to have passed a Bill for 5-year carbon budget periods, (I think it should be shorter) in which we have got to reduce CO2 emissions to reach our target.  In 1990 (the arbitrarily set dateline for carbon accounting) we were at 160 million tonnes of CO2. We’ve got to get down to 32 million tonnes if we’re going to have an 80 percent reduction.  That’s the figure the Government has statutorily committed itself to, which I think is absolutely right.  The point I’m making is that you cannot get there, anywhere near there simply by reductions on fossil fuels.  We should do everything we can to squeeze fossil fuels, I’d like to be able to phase them out, but we’re not going to be able to do that quickly, but we should squeeze them down.  The only way that we can get within sniffing distance is by a massive, massive increase in renewables.  And that’s one very big driver.

The second big driver is the global low carbon economy as we come out of this recession, and everyone agrees it’s the worst for nearly 100 years. And we can only maintain our position in energy export markets if we have a good record of switching very strongly into renewables.  As indeed many other countries have and just to put it in perspective, I was surprised when I read the other day that world investment in renewables last year exceeded world investment in fossil fuels.  That’s a very significant tilting point.  And I know from my long experience in politics and so many other processes that when the system begins to tilt it gathers momentum quite quickly.

40% electricity from renewables by 2020

The EU can also do a lot of good things and they have agreed 202020.  What that means is there has to be a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020.  We ought to be able to get there easily considering the waste of energy, and a switch to 20 percent of all our energy from renewables, which certainly means that the proportion of our electricity generation which comes from renewables won’t have to be 20 percent, it will have to be nearer 40 percent, and today it is 4 percent. We have eleven years to go until 2020 and that’s a massive change and a statutory requirement.  In the UK, if we fail to achieve it, we could be subject to significant penalties from the EU.

How do we achieve carbon reduction?

Create a domestic market

First, we need to create a domestic market. I think that the Government’s current investment of £12 million is inadequate.  We need to be demanding something in the region of £10 billion. I do say, and this is not meant to be facetious, that if we can fork out £40 billion for the first financial crisis bail out, 40 billion for the second bail out and we now discover that there was a further £60 billion that we were not told about.  I wonder how many other things? But even that is £140 billion. If we can afford that, I mean where did it come from?  It’s extraordinary.   If we can put something in the order of £10 billion in creating a domestic market for renewables, it would create many new jobs. And, it would empower us at a time when renewable energy is going to be a critical issue in this next decade. It would put us in a world leading position as well as taking advantage of our geography and our ecology, and what that offers.

Ensure access to the grid

Second, we need to ensure access to the grid.  The barrier to that is the fossil fuel abusers who are determined to maintain their priorities and their dominance of the grid. Obviously coal, gas and nuclear predominate. It just simply means the political will to face them down and absolutely insist that the renewables get a significant and increasing share and there must be no administrative or other blockages.

Microgeneration for win-win-win situation

Third, to achieve carbon reduction we’ve got to do more on feed-in tariffs as we have seen in Germany (also see Alan Simpson’s Faith Hope Chaos).  Microgeneration is the future.  There is no question about this.  There are enormous nuclear dinosaurs stuck in the countryside costing billions to build where 50 percent of energy is lost in production and further 5 percent in transmission.  Microgeneration is the way out, but you’ve got to give people an incentive. People in Germany are given a very good price for investing in this and when you sell it to the grid the profit that you make is going to make it a very worthwhile investment.  It’s a win-win-win situation for the country, for the individual and for energy security, which is what Governments are always going on about.

Carbon tax not carbon offsetting

Finally, you’ve got to tilt the market in an important way towards renewables. The real requirement is the will.  The aspiration is there and there has been a lot of talk about a carbon tax.  I think the Government has made it very clear that they want to see the carbon tax as one of the main objectives of Copenhagen.  I’m one of those who still remain faintly optimistic that we will get some kind of political deal, but a carbon tax is very much needed.  Yes, we’ve got a climate change levy and a climate change agreement, which the Government introduced.  These are fine.  The trouble is that the exclude the domestic sector and they exclude public transport and both of those are very big and very important generators of emissions. So they’ve got to be included and I think a carbon tax is obviously the right way to do it. 

In addition, we should end carbon offsetting.  This is the really big cheat.  What is says is that we’re going to set ourselves one of these very big targets probably so far ahead that our Government would have disappeared into history.  I want to see progress at the start, not at the end of the process. I’m all in favour of big targets so long as we have big targets fairly near the beginning. But whatever size the target, the important thing is that you can’t cheat by buying it all abroad.  It means technically that you can make hardly any change at all in terms of emissions reductions in Britain, that you can meet your targets simply by buying abroad, by improving factories in Bangladesh, by building a new facility in China, etc, etc. I’m all in favour of doing these other things, but they shouldn’t count towards our domestic target. We need to see the changes here.

I remain as always an optimist, whether on the back benches, or anywhere else.  I believe that however many reverses we take, and when you’re in the Labour Party you have to take a few reverses, but however many you take, in the end we can succeed.

Transcribed by Sam Burcher at the Green Energies meeting at Westminster, 25th November, 2009; edited by Sam Burcher and Dr Mae-Wan Ho.

Article first published 09/12/09

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Rory Short Comment left 10th December 2009 19:07:44
I am delighted to see that Michael Meacher remains optomistic inspite of the UK's appalling renewables record compared to what it could have and should have been. I would guess many countries are in the same boat however. My own country South Africa which could and should be a centre of solar energy continues to drag its feet and invest in new coal fired powered stations, and contemplates further nuclear stations as well, instead of putting its effort into renewables. Sometimes I feel as though I am living in a mad house because hose who are making these crazy energy generation decisions seem quite unable to see that they are helping to destroy us all, them included.