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Right actions versus good intentions

Politicians have been making strong pronouncements about their intention to support renewable energy in both rich and poor countries over the past few years.

Most party election manifestos promise green jobs, new business opportunities and more sustainable lifestyles. The reality of policymaking has been a little different.

When US President Barack Obama took office, rhetoric about a green new deal resurrecting the world from global recession was at its height. Two years on, it is becoming increasingly clear that coherent and consistent frameworks are more important than sudden bursts of funding when it comes to building up and maintaining sustainable industry sectors.

Now that the Republicans have regained control of the US House of Representatives, the lower chamber of US parliament, the Obama administration's push for a national renewable-electricity standard, obliging utilities to source a portion of the energy they supply from renewables, is likely to run out of steam. Notions that all energy sources should receive equal treatment are likely to prevail.

This has potentially disastrous consequences for the wind sector. If a "clean-energy standard" is introduced instead, other low-carbon energy sources - such as coal plants with carbon capture and storage or nuclear plants - will also receive a boost. This is a more serious problem than one of scarce resources being diluted across a range of energy technologies. Nuclear and wind are inherently incompatible (Windpower Monthly, June 2007).

While wind has confirmed its global standing as a mainstream source of electricity with a proven technology, competitive costs and manageable environmental impacts, the key hurdles of transmission and backup remain. Upgrading grids to the standard required to guarantee electricity supply whenever and wherever it is needed is expensive but possible. Power plants that can be switched on and off are also part of the answer. Nuclear is not.

Cause for concern

It is not surprising that politicians try to please as many voters as they can, including the nuclear and coal lobbies. But when it comes to energy policy, this approach risks derailing countries from achieving the very goals they want to meet.

In yet another potential setback for the US wind sector, Obama's hopes of pushing through an energy bill this year could be dashed by concerns over national debt and scepticism over global warming. The signs of a much-needed upward curve for the wind power industry after a disappointing 2010 are not good.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK government's plans to overhaul its electricity market were generally received as a positive step towards delivering its stated goals of ensuring security of supply, reducing carbon emissions and lowering costs for consumers. But replacing the renewables obligation with a contracts-for-difference model raises concerns.

The UK energy minister's upbeat speech, a few days after the new policy was announced, at a proposed site for a new nuclear power station was yet another sign of political crowd-pleasing tactics triumphing over coherent policymaking. There will never be a better time to make hard choices. We can only hope that the people in power will be brave enough to do so.

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