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A GREATER SENSE OF REALISM

Last month's huge World Energy Council (WEC) congress in Tokyo tackled most major issues haunting the electricity industry. More money should go to renewable energy to speed up its development and recent declines in research and development spending should be reversed. The current abundance of fossil fuels gives only a 50 year "breathing space" for a "fundamental educative process" to bring a greater sense of realism to energy supply. Words were backed by a fistful of recommendations for changing the established structure of electricity generation, supply and price.

When a major talking shop rooted in the electricity establishment announces to the world that more money should go to renewable energy to speed up its development, it's time to sit up and listen. When five thousand delegates not only back this recommendation from last month's World Energy Council congress in Tokyo, but also recognise that higher electricity prices are a must to pay for sustainable power generation, it's time for the wind business to get weaving.

Last month's huge WEC congress tackled most of the major issues haunting the electricity industry. Significantly, renewables had a new status. No longer were epithets such as "promising new technology" attached to them. Instead they were talked about on a par with fossil fuel and nuclear -- almost as the third pillar of electricity generation. Renewables, the congress stated, were being developed far too slowly. Recent declines in research and development spending should be reversed. And it warned that the current abundance of fossil fuels gives us only a 50 year "breathing space" for a "fundamental educative process" to bring a greater sense of realism to the job of energy supply.

Noting that "a major contribution from renewable energy will be essential," and concluding that "governments in particular must be encouraged to finance and develop renewable energy to achieve accelerated diffusion," the congress recommended that "governments and the private sector should increase R&D expenditure" to speed commercialisation of renewables. These could have been the conclusions of an average wind conference, rather than an organisation representing the world energy sector.

Importantly, WEC's fine words did not stand in isolation. They were backed by a fistful of recommendations for changing the established structure of electricity generation and supply, recommendations the wind movement has been making for years. On electricity price the congress concluded it "should ideally incorporate the costs of environmental detriments where these are not captured by market mechanisms." Furthermore, "energy should cease to be regarded as a public good. It is a service which . . . should be provided economically and efficiently at a price which reflects its full costs." To achieve this, "governments should take early action to phase out energy subsidies so that energy services are priced on a full cost basis." That is what wind lobbyists have continually been asking for -- a level playing field. On nuclear power the congress seemed uneasy. "Without public confidence in this technology there must be doubts as to the role nuclear energy can play." If (note "if" ) nuclear power is to make a contribution to the long term, further development of the technology "seems to be needed." The cost of this further development does not bear thinking about.

The Congress threw down two challenges. First, alleviating the plight of the over two billion people -- about 40% of the world's population -- without electricity and thus without the means to break out of poverty. Second, achieving a path to sustainable development, including a sustainable energy supply. Wind power is eminently suited to meet both challenges. Wherever the wind blows, electricity is available; no need for poor communities to pay for miles of expensive power lines; no need to build roads for transportation of costly fuel. And wind power is totally sustainable. Within a few months, a wind turbine has more than made up for the energy used during its manufacture.

The wind business knows, though, that if it is to rise and meet the immense challenges thrown down by the World Energy Council, it needs help. Governments must provide a level playing field; they must also provide more cash for R&D if wind technology, still very young, is to realise its full potential.

In this knowledge -- and in the light of the World Energy Council's teachings -- the fact that utilities the world over are allowed to get away with not paying a fair price for wind is appalling. The fact that R&D programmes are being viciously cut in the US and have been threatened in Europe in recent weeks is a scandal. Politicians should be ashamed. When organisations like Shell recognise that renewables have the potential to meet a third of our energy needs (page 19), when huge companies like Bechtel move into renewables because they see the enormous market for human-scale energy systems (page 23), the time is long past for gently suggesting change to recalcitrant power sector bosses.

In the words of the World Energy Council congress: "This is not a period for protracted debate but for sound policy and decision taking now. Action postponed will be opportunity lost."

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