Can the invisible hand have green fingers?
Addressing energy ministers from over 20 leading economies at April’s Clean Energy summit in London, David Cameron reiterated his government’s green credentials. “When I became Prime Minister, I said that Britain would have the greenest government ever,” he stated. “And that’s exactly what we have.”
Rhetoric and political leadership are all well and good, but they are ultimately hollow if not backed up by a meaningful policy agenda. Paying closer attention to Cameron’s speech, perhaps it is little wonder that it was received frostily by the environmental lobby and renewable energy trade associations.
The Prime Minister might claim that he “passionately believe[s] that the rapid growth of renewable energy is vital to our future”, but what is the coalition government doing to promote it?
The three initiatives Cameron selected as evidence of progress, namely the renewable heat incentive, the green investment bank, and a carbon capture and storage programme, have all dawdled into being and, although promising, are yet to have a significant impact on the development and deployment of renewable technologies.
Perhaps more worryingly, Cameron used the speech to give tacit approval to the slashing of the Feed-in Tariff for small and medium scale solar photovoltaics. He said it was right that as costs fell, consumers should pay less in subsidies for new projects. The reason solar costs did fall was because the sector was supported by an ambitious policy mechanism – government backtracking has since left the solar industry in a state of dangerous uncertainty.
Offshore wind and marine generation technologies will need subsidising for the foreseeable future as they move towards cost competitiveness. Yet, despite paying lip service to the renewable capacity off our coasts, the speech gave the impression that the coalition might be losing its appetite for supporting these sectors.
According to a report released by the Renewable Energy Association this month, renewable technologies could support 400,000 jobs and be worth close to £25billion to the UK economy by 2020. Of course, the industry will not be able to fulfill that potential if the government does not follow through on its promises of support.
Generally, the tendency to focus on cost is unfortunate. To get cold feet on the renewables agenda now smacks of short-termism. Nobody wants to pay more every month for their energy, but the fact is that supporting the growth of renewables adds relatively very little to the average energy bill. And, the small amount you might have to pay pales into insignificance set against the potential environmental, economic, and social benefit of a world-leading renewables industry.
Whilst capital costs of, say, a deep-water offshore windfarm might be significant; the running costs should be competitive with conventional sources. The offshore wind sector has taken it upon itself to explore any and all possible means of cost reduction. To flourish, it and other renewables sectors must be allowed to mature in a climate of confidence rather than uncertainty.
It’s refreshing that the Prime Minister recognises the potential of renewable energy and publicly still professes commitment to his green agenda. However, he must now demonstrate the political will to get behind renewable energy on the ground, beneath the ground, on rooftops, in rivers and at sea.