Beware of the cynic

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Cynicism is a trait tuned to perfection by the English, particularly when employed to keep government in its place. But to dismiss a revolutionary green energy policy as "spin," "greenwash" and a disingenuous conspiracy to see nuclear rise from the ashes of failed renewable energy technology is cynicism turned dangerously destructive.

Elements of the renewables lobby and various green energy campaigners seem intent on biting the helping hand. The early welcome, tempered by sensible provisos, extended to Tony Blair's White Paper on energy (Windpower Monthly, March 2003), has turned to criticism and condemnation. The British government's commendable goal for a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 -- and its expectation that wind not nuclear is to be active in scoring the goal -- has all but been forgotten in a deluge of ifs and buts.

Much of the criticism seems born of a distrust and disillusionment with government in general rather than inherent failings in the British document. Compared with the energy policy published in Denmark in the same week of February (page 43), the British plan is a shining example of vision and lessons well learned. The cynical theory that renewables are being given a five year trial, so government can later say that nuclear was the best bet all along, is not one this column is buying. The cost of supporting renewables will pale into insignificance against kick-starting the nuclear industry all over again -- and government knows it.

The green energy policy is being criticised for lack of substance on a series of specifics, and quite rightly so. But as the British Wind Energy Association has pointed out, concern about details should not detract from the benefits of a long term Renewables Obligation and a government demonstrating a fierce political will to seeing its policies on renewables realised, most recently demonstrated in its fast-tracking of a series of offshore wind projects through the permitting process (page 25).

As far as wind is concerned, three broad criticisms are levelled against the White Paper: that government has shied away from a fixed target for the Renewables Obligation up to 2020; that it fails to bring electricity regulator Ofgem to heel, allowing it to perpetuate the myth of hugely expensive and troublesome renewables; and that government is consistently overstating the costs of the obligation.

First, targets. It is hardly surprising the Blair government is wary of them, given that it has already missed those for transport, health, education and crime (we'll refrain from awarding government a prize for exceeding targets for the promotion of cynicism for fear of being tarred with our own brush). And to expect a regulation fixing the amount of green energy in the supply mix for the next 18 years is not realistic -- especially with carbon emissions trading turning up as an unknown factor in the renewables market from 2005. What we do have is a target for 10.4% of renewables by 2010; a promise to review it for beyond 2010 within three years; a goal for 20% renewables by 2020 (an "ambition" in the White Paper that energy minister Brian Wilson has since referred to in writing as a "target"); and a Renewables Obligation that will run until 2027. Call that a lack of government commitment once more? Or only do so if the investment flooding into British wind actually dries up, rather than being subject to nervous warnings that it might dry up.

Wilson's hands-off attitude to Ofgem and the regulator's decidedly unhelpful approach to the requirements of wind power is irritating, but hardly surprising given that regulation of the energy sector is independent of government. A positively inclined regulator, however, can make all the difference -- just look at Douglas McIldoon in Northern Ireland or Pat Wood who heads the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the United States. At their behest (and some good lobbying work from wind industry members) regulatory barriers to wind power have been consistently removed. It could well happen in England and Wales, too, if the wind industry buckles down to helping Wilson deal with Ofgem's thinly veiled hostilities.

Biting hands can lead to indigestion

As to the thorny issue of cost. Here the government is between the devil and the deep blue sea. If it claims the Renewables Obligation will hardly add a penny to electricity bills it is lambasted by the general press for being unrealistic and uninformed. If, to show its sobriety and caution, it quotes a top estimate provided by a doubting Treasury, it is howled at by both consumer groups and the renewables lobby, the one for sending the country into penury and the other for overstating the cost. Here, time is on the side of wind power, which once given the fair chance that consistent policy represents will be in a position to reveal how cheap it can be, offshore too (page 51). While government believes the Renewables Obligation could add anything from 4.4% to 15% to consumer electricity bills, wind is on course to show that it can supply 8% of the UK's electricity by 2010 for an extra cost of well under 4%, perhaps even half that.

Critics of the government are demanding that having talked the talk, it must now walk the walk -- it must deal with Ofgem and it must fill the gaps in regulation that will prevent its policies from being realised. Once that is done, the wind industry will be showing us all what it is capable of. Cynics, we hope, have good digestions, for after swallowing the helping hand it seems likely they'll be eating their words too.

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