Article by Guest Contributor: Heidi Strebel
When it comes to renewable energies, competition is the order of the day. Countries are vying to host the world’s biggest wind farm, largest solar power plant, or leading geothermal complex. However, we cannot be distracted by visions of great turbine armies striking out across the oceans or of noble mirror legions conquering the deserts, fighting the front-line battle for us in the war against climate change. We must not lose sight of the interaction between different forces within renewable energy markets that are far more subtle and complex than the often simplistic ‘mine is bigger than yours’ contest in power plant size.
Recently both California and South Africa claimed the highest podium in the race for the largest solar power plant, while the UK vaunted its lead in wind energy with the opening of the Thanet wind farm off Kent at the end of September. Competition in renewables between nations, regions and peoples can trigger the innovation and initiative needed to develop new technologies and encourage market expansion. However the rival fanfare around the ‘largest plant’ can obfuscate a far more complicated set of circumstances. To begin to understand the situation in any one renewable energy market, we must put the self-congratulatory winner into the wider context of national energy supply and climate policies.
Take the Thanet offshore wind farm. With 100 turbines spread over an area of 35 sq kilometres, it is expected to have a total capacity of 300 MW, enough energy to power more than 200,000 homes. It has been hailed as the ‘world’s largest offshore wind farm’. However focusing solely on the power capacity of a new plant without reference to overall national energy supply can be misleading. As The Guardian’s Terry Macalister pointed out, with just 3% of power from renewable sources, the UK is ranked 25 out of 27 in the European Union league table, so even with the Thanet wind farm the country has a long way to go before meeting the target of 15% by 2020.
Experience in other countries, for example with wind energy in Denmark or with solar energy in Germany, has shown that government support is essential to the successful expansion of renewable energy markets. At the opening ceremony of the Thanet project, UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne criticised the previous government’s weak commitment to renewable energies and acknowledged the need for more public funding to ensure the transition to a low carbon energy supply. Unfortunately there is a very tangible risk that the current coalition government will perform barely better than its predecessor, at least in the near future.
As Nyla Sarwar observed here on Climatico, with the announcement of the UK Government’s budget review in mid-October the prospects of moving towards a low carbon economy in the UK have been hugely compromised. The changes in climate policy that emerged from the review create uncertainty where certainty and strong incentives are needed to encourage investment.
British firms benefited from only 20% of the £900 million investment in the Thanet wind farm, and only around 10% of investment in the even larger London Array farm scheduled to open in 2011. In January 2010 the UK Government, the previous one, granted licenses for several more major offshore wind projects, but as Macalister reports, wind turbine makers Siemens and GE are waiting for final confirmation of the projects before moving to open factories in the country.
If the coalition government wants to honour its commitment to ‘support the creation of new green jobs and technologies’ then perhaps it should expend less of its energy on predictable censure of political rivals and more on implementing policies that attract businesses and investors to the different renewable energy markets in the UK. The country can benefit from new jobs and rise in the ranks of EU and world league tables, giving full meaning to the title of ‘leader’ in the renewables race.