Same direction, different speed

WORLDWIDE: The different speeds at which business, governments and the public set a course towards a low-carbon future inevitably lead to clashes and collisions.

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Policies set in place to promote wind power and other renewable energy sources are often knocked off course by other, unrelated plans.

The German government's Energiewende - the shift from coal and nuclear to renewables - has successfully encouraged growth of the country's wind energy, and has enjoyed broad support from the German public. But the state of Bavaria is resisting investment in grid upgrades, a crucial factor in renewable energy deployment. While the federal government is working to cut nuclear power output by 2022, the regional government seems to be fighting a rearguard action to either extend operation of its nuclear plants or increase gas generation.

The UK general election last month highlighted another conflict of interests. The election was not won on energy policies - indeed, energy and climate change was barely discussed - but the return of a Conservative government with an overall majority, small though it is, allows it to press ahead with its pledge to halt the spread of onshore wind farms. Yet that policy is at odds with another manifesto promise - to protect the environment at the lowest possible cost - even though the government's own figures show that onshore wind in the cheapest form of large-scale renewable energy available.

Conflicts grow in number when big business objects to changes in government policy. Spain and Italy are both facing legal challenges from renewable energy companies over their retrospective reductions in subsidies for wind and solar power. And Germany's decision to phase-out nuclear is the subject of a €4.7 billion claim in compensation from Swedish utility Vattenfall to cover the loss of potential profits from two nuclear facilities in the country.

The fact that Vattenfall is a wind-friendly firm supports its assertion that it is not seeking to influence government policy, but is simply making the case that existing international trade agreements should always be honoured. Business interests come first; decisions by democratically elected governments a distant second.

This is a disconnect that the wind industry must live with. For the years that onshore wind has been feeling its way towards financial viability, incentives have been essential, and these businesses too have been instrumental in helping it reach price parity. While going back on a promise is hard to countenance, policies have to be seen in the light of current circumstances.

In May, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden predicted that global energy systems will become "zero carbon" by the end of the century, and that by 2050, Shell will be "working on a very, very large segment of renewable energy". But right now, he is held back from investing more heavily in renewables by shareholders, who on the one hand demand more transparency on the effect of its activities on climate change, but on the other seek financial returns as high as they are accustomed to from oil and gas.

By continuing to drive down the levelised cost of energy, wind becomes an economic story not a political story, Chris Brown of Vestas reminded delegates at last month's AWEA conference. The lower that can fall, the more that governments and business will all seek a speedy course towards a renewables-heavy future.

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