United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Benefits of talking with one voice

Few dispute that together the various sustainable energy lobbies would be a strong political force, but strategic differences are such that only an informal grouping seems possible. A welcome British development of 1996 was the setting up of the Sustainable Energy Roundtable, which consists of trades associations, academics and environmental groups who meet monthly to discuss renewable issues and debate policy options.

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One of the welcome developments of 1996 in Britain was the setting up of an informal forum to discuss policy development and lobbying on behalf of the sustainable energy industry. Known as the Sustainable Energy Roundtable, it consists of trades associations, academics and environmental groups who meet monthly to exchange views on renewable issues and debate policy options to take the industry beyond the current round of non-fossil fuel obligation (NFFO) subsidies which ends in 1998.

The round table is concentrating its efforts on two areas, explains Fanny Calder from the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) who helps with the group's administration. Firstly it is trying to formulate an industry-wide policy for renewables after deregulation of electricity in 1998. "We are looking at the future of the existing Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, and how in a competitive market renewables can best be supported," she says. "We are trying to develop a clear policy message." Secondly, the group is actively lobbying parliament to put sustainable energy firmly on the agenda.

One of the round table's immediate aims is to table in parliament an Early Day Motion on sustainable energy. "By working with our allies in the NGOs [non-government organisations] and energy efficiency lobby, we hope to get a mass sign-up to the motion," says Calder. The timing is particularly appropriate with an election looming. If the motion succeeds in rallying support, it would strengthen the position of any future energy minister trying to implement its party's renewable energy policies.

The round table first met in June and was formed to bring together the sometimes diverse interests in the sustainable energy industry. "The idea is that we co-ordinate the efforts of all the renewables," says Calder. She acknowledges the technologies may have different concerns. "Wind and biomass have different stakeholder issues. But while, on a detailed level the different technology groups may have disparate concerns, on the broad issues of policy and politics, it makes enormous sense to come together -- to share brain power and political muscle." Gaynor Hartnell of the British Wind Energy Association believes the dialogue between round table members serves another important function: "At the very least it can avoid any one renewable energy trade association lobbying for a policy which may be against the interests of another."

Quality and not self interest

Despite being a diverse group, the members are committed to working together, Calder claims. "It is a forum where everybody feels comfortable putting forward their particular viewpoints." To ensure that no single interest predominates, each meeting is chaired by a different participating organisation.

It is the very diversity of the round table's membership that gives its views more weight, she believes. When trade associations lobby on their own behalf they risk sounding as if they are motivated by self interest, she says. "But when they talk together they start to take on the quality of an environmental movement rather than an industrial group, and that puts the issue firmly on the moral high ground."

Informality is probably the key to the round table's success so far. It was never intended to be a single renewable energy association to formally represent all sections within the industry, stresses Nicola Steen from the Association of Electricity Producers. She believes the AEP's own renewable energy committee serves this purpose. Steen was one of the people instrumental in setting up the round table, but takes a cautious view of what it can achieve. Any policy ideas it develops would have to be signed on to by the boards of all participating organisations before it could be truly representative of the sustainable energy industry, she points out. "Our aim is not to produce anything, the aim is to discuss ideas," she says.

Yet it is well known within the renewable industry that the government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) believes there are far too many different trade associations and would prefer to deal with just one representative body. Likewise, Eurosolar UK has called for a single voice to lobby on behalf of the industry in Britain.

However, past attempts at a single representative group of renewable energy interests have failed in Britain. This was due to too many conflicts between different interests, explains David Elliott from the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment (NATTA) at the Open University. "It was impossible to make a coalition between the different warring tribes," he says. Elliott is concerned that there is no single body pushing for more investment in research, or into renewables that have been dismissed by the government as long shots -- such as offshore technologies. He believes the round table is a useful sounding board -- particularly for the future after NFFO which is its main agenda item. Nonetheless, he sees no prospect yet of a coherent trade association emerging from the different renewable technologies. "It is not as if they are commercially competitive so much as strategically competitive. There are conflicts, but they are strategic conflicts," he says.

Hartnell, on the other hand, takes a more optimistic view. "I think the round table has been a very positive experience for the renewable trade associations involved. We have come to realise that we can work together," she says. "I envisage that at some time in the future, we may be able to talk to the DTI with one voice."

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