Strong British signals on renewables -- Government prioritises environment spending

Energy and climate issues have moved up the British government's policy agenda with the creation of a new Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The new department, providing a direct link between cause and effect, emerged as the main element of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government reshuffle early last month. It has its own Secretary of State, Ed Miliband, the younger brother of the British Foreign Secretary and a close ally of Brown.

One of the pressing issues in Miliband's in-tray is the government's new renewable energy strategy and whether the UK will accept, without further argument, the 2020 target of 15% of energy from renewables proposed by the European Commission. Government departments for industry and environment have long appeared to pull in different directions and green groups have argued that the energy portfolio should be removed from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and placed with a cabinet-level minister with responsibility for meeting renewables and climate change targets. "This is an example of joined up thinking we have been calling for, which should make a difference," says British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) chairman Adam Bruce. Other business groups agree with him.

Miliband has his work cut out in setting new policies to meet the UK's European target. The share of energy from renewables must rise from 2% to 15% within 11 years. His DECC team includes minister of state Mike O'Brien, who will lead on energy matters, including renewables. Former energy minister at BERR, Malcolm Wicks, becomes Brown's special representative on international energy issues. Both O'Brien and Wicks have demonstrated goodwill towards wind power in the past.

Miliband's first action as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was to announce the 80% target for emissions reduction. One of his chosen instruments is a proposal to encourage small scale private electricity generation from renewable energy sources by introducing a fixed purchase price, being referred to as a "feed-in tariff" after a translation of a similar law in Germany, which has driven the wind power market there since the mid 1990s.

According to the government's Climate Change advisory committee, the 80% cut can be achieved through energy efficiency, decarbonising the power sector by replacing conventional generation with renewables, nuclear and carbon capture, and decarbonising industry and the transport and heat sectors.

Since the government set its previous legally binding emissions reduction target of 60% from 1990 levels, more has become known about the impacts of climate change, says Miliband. Despite tough economic times it would be wrong to row back on climate change objectives, he adds. "As we all know, signing up to an eighty per cent cut by 2050, when most of us will not be around, is the easy part; the hard part is meeting it, and meeting the milestones that will show we're on track." Those milestones will be laid by the climate change committee, which in December will advise the government on the first 15 years of carbon budgets, or national emissions limits, adds Miliband.

Democratic ideal

He notes the Renewables Obligation (RO) has tripled supply in the past five years. More could be done if market support for small-scale renewables is introduced, he believes. "Guaranteed prices for small-scale electricity generation -- feed-in tariffs -- have the potential to play an important role, as they do in other countries," according to Miliband. "We plan to table an amendment to the energy bill to make that happen."

The Renewable Energy Association is supportive of the policy for smaller scale wind. "The new tariff will give a big boost to communities, householders and businesses who want to contribute to our sustainable energy targets," it says. Alan Simpson, a member of parliament who has pushed for local involvement in renewables development, brands the concept the "democratic idea of our time." He adds: "Citizens and communities, as the producers of renewable energy, become the drivers of a radical change in energy markets. These could yet be the social movements that save the planet."

The BWEA is more cautious. "We are supportive of a feed-in tariff," says its Charles Anglin. "However, we want to ensure it does not undermine the Renewables Obligation, which has been a very successful scheme." Any new tariff should have a clear cap on the size of project eligible for support, he insists. "We think it should be set at 500 kW."