In an interview with Windpower Monthly, the UK's shadow energy spokesman, Martin O'Neill, discussed the Labour Party's attitude to renewables and NFFO support. "We think there will be an increasing contribution but so far there hasn't been a minister prepared to stand up and shout on behalf of renewables. Instead there has always been a kind of half hearted commitment," he said. "We want to see more government leadership in this area," he said.
But it seems unlikely that it will come from Labour. O'Neill went on to demonstrate some decidedly dated views of the barriers to renewables expansion. "We would hope to exceed the government's target for renewables by the year 2010, but we are conscious that in some respects it is a chicken and egg problem," he said. "This is because the technology is either in its infancy and it will not develop beyond that until there is a critical mass of equipment. Or alternatively it is prohibitively expensive because we are not producing in sufficient numbers. We would certainly want to encourage the forms of renewables which would help, in particular, those communities that are remote and for whom transmission costs are a sizeable burden."
O'Neill believes NFFO has been successful in stimulating a market for renewables and at present he sees a future Labour government maintaining it. However, he does not appear to have much of a grasp of the legislation's strengths and shortcomings. "It has been a help in developing public awareness of renewables and encouraging investment," he said. "Unfortunately it is too bureaucratic at the moment and there are other problems."
Nonetheless, he points to time lags between applications and granting of financial support as well as the failure-rate of a high proportion of contracted capacity which means that viable schemes may be crowded out of the process by others which never reach completion. "Certainly we would want to streamline the vetting process -- dealing with it more quickly, perhaps devoting more resources to consideration of NFFO projects. We would want to give it a higher profile and have a more proactive role by government.
"We would also want to use it to encourage manufacturing of equipment in Britain. We would want to look at what possibilities there are for developing or adapting new technologies in the UK even if it involves producing the equipment under licence. More work could be done in this area and it would be one of the ways for Britain to get a proper stake in the renewables business. At the moment there is often a kind of prejudice that you have of necessity to buy foreign equipment, but that by doing so you are somehow denying employment to British workers in the energy equipment industries by going elsewhere. Also we would like to explore with potential manufacturers and others the possibility of securing European funding. We would be willing to play a pump priming role to get other people on board like some of the emerging technologies. I believe that with a bit of government support other money would become more readily available.
On the subject of wind energy O'Neill appears reluctant to give it his wholehearted support, seeing visual intrusion as a major obstacle. "Wind power is one of the most readily available natural sources of energy but there are problems associated with it. There is the scenic issue and there is the question of whether or not local communities want to have what are sometimes intrusive wind farms on their skyline. I think the supporters of wind power may well be losing that battle at the moment. They are going to have to box a bit more cleverly if they want to avoid becoming the 'open casting' of the renewables business -- the thing that people don't want on their doorstep."
While he suspects the forcing of wind projects onto high (visible) wind speed sites may be one of the drawbacks of NFFO he also believes that a few large companies, in particular some Regional Electricity Companies (RECs), have contributed to the problem by seeking to use wind to improve their green credentials. "I think there is an element of gesture politics here in the sense that they want to be seen to have a green tinge and are quite enthusiastic because they can put up projects which, with NFFO support, do not cost them a great deal. I think that some of the RECs with their wind farms have blundered in this way and in some ways perhaps have retarded the development of wind power."
Looking to the future he believes local communities could play a valuable role in driving renewable energy development. "It may be that people will begin to look at the need for renewable energy in particular areas and then start to explore what the appropriate technologies would be for those areas. It may be something that local government would want to look at. We are only just beginning to grope towards an appreciation of the sort of independent power generation opportunities there are now."
He believes local authorities could be involved directly in renewable schemes. This could be possible either by generating electricity themselves, or in partnership with generators to sell electricity to the local community. "There are a number of opportunities there. Because we are still shedding the old publicly owned central government driven energy thinking in the UK, there isn't yet an awareness on the part of a lot of local authorities -- and indeed businesses -- of the scope for localised generation." He points out that there have been a few moves in the right direction but government or NFFO support could stimulate new opportunities for renewables in many more areas.
"Government shouldn't just be about giving financial support. We should be creating a climate where people are prepared to look out for the new and emerging technologies and see if it is possible to adapt them to local needs."