Time to take a hold of the future

EDITORIAL: The difficult situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant following Japan's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami last month has reignited the debate about energy policy.

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All sessions at the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) annual gathering in Brussels on March 14-17 were dominated by the topic.

As EU climate-change commissioner Connie Hedegaard said at the EWEA event, public support for nuclear is evaporating fast. In Germany, against the background of a government decision last autumn to extend the lifespan of the country's 17 nuclear power plants, seven plants were taken offline, amid street protests, in the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis.

Elsewhere, politicians intent on including nuclear power in their plans are having to think twice. The Italian centre-right government has put advanced plans to reintroduce nuclear power on the back burner. Meantime, a poll conducted a few days after the Japanese earthquake showed more than three quarters of Italians to be either "very opposed" or "quite opposed" to nuclear power.

Further afield, in the US, a report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 24 raised concerns about unreported problems with faulty components at the 104 reactors operating in the country. While identifying no immediate risks, the report does nothing to increase confidence in the ultimate safety of the nuclear industry.

Beyond knee-jerk reactions, the EU's spotlight has switched back to long-term energy policy. If Europe is to hit its 2050 target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from its energy sector by 85-90% from 1990 levels, it will have to generate all its electricity from sources that do not emit carbon. Until a few weeks ago, this would have included renewables and nuclear in most people's minds. But events in Japan have changed that.

For Europe to generate all its electricity from renewables by 2050, the wind sector must get it right. Although solar technologies are maturing fast, hydropower continues to be an important energy source in some areas and biomass can become one in others, this very ambitious target cannot be reached without wind - onshore and offshore - making significant advances.

Obstacles ranging from policy to regulation and from infrastructure to funding are holding back further development of wind power. But for wind to fully play its role as the world's dominant renewable-energy technology, the industry must get a clear and consistent message on its many benefits through to people outside its inner circle.

Turbine prices have been falling in the last few years and ongoing improvements in efficiency and reliability are being achieved. But there is no room for complacency. Among the general public, the view that wind power is a clever bit of kit but not a reliable source of power still prevails. At a time when the industry - its offshore manifestation in particular - needs to attract funding from a wide range of sources, demonstrating efficiency and competitiveness at every step of the way is crucial.

In Brussels, the head of the Spanish wind energy association, Jose Donoso, told an illuminating anecdote. On taxi rides in Spain, when asked about his job, the driver's "Wind? Nice!" reaction of a few years ago has now turned to "Wind? Expensive!".

If there is one lesson from the Fukushima crisis, it is that public support is slowly gained and very quickly lost. The wind industry must waste no time in working hard to win the hearts and minds of its current and prospective customers.

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