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Renewable energy - how greywash drowns the green

Joss Garman

9th June, 2008

With fuel bills rising and back in the news, bizarrely it’s green energy in the firing line.

With fuel bills rising and back in the news, bizarrely it’s green energy in the firing line. The Independent’s Dominic Lawson rails against ‘the staggering cost of renewable energy’ and quotes Paul Golby, boss of German energy giant E.ON, warning, ‘politicians have not been entirely honest about the cost of our renewables commitment, and so the public don’t really know what’s coming their way.’ Renewables will be the scapegoat when it’s the rocketing price of oil and gas driving up fuel bills. The irony is that if Britain developed a robust renewables industry, the whole country could be insulated from further spikes.

After Labour’s May Day meltdown, the Prime Minister wants us to rest assured he’s dealing with the hike in fuel prices. But how? With prices expected to increase in answer to the rising demand for fossil fuels from Asian economies, the best way to keep bills low will be a switch to green, decentralised energy. Aberdeen provides proof. On the Stockitt Hill housing estate they built a Combined-Heat-and-Power (CHP) plant and cut fuel bills by 30 per cent. In Southampton, communities can hook up to a local decentralised grid, with fuel bills 10 per cent less expensive than the next cheapest alternative and 11,000 tonnes of CO² saved per year. In Birmingham’s Broad Street, CHP saves 10,000 tonnes of CO² a year, cutting bills by five per cent.

Germany is nationalising the shift under its ‘feed-in-tariff’ system – guaranteeing premium prices for renewable energy providers. For around £1 per month on the average household’s bill, it now generates more electricity from renewables than the entire UK nuclear fleet.

Germany generates 200 times more solar than us and 10 times more wind. While Labour last year fitted 270 households with solar panels, Germany fitted 130,000. Transferred to the UK context, Germany’s renewables would provide 18 per cent of our electricity and seven per cent of our heat.

The good news is that, in theory at least, we’re about to catch up. Britain signed up to a vital European deal committing us to generating 40 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2020. Conveniently, a whole portion of our power-generation infrastructure is up for renewal soon, as existing power stations near the end of their lifespan. Everything is set for a clean-energy revolution. So why isn’t it happening?

This historic opportunity is being sabotaged by grey-suited civil servants at the Department for Business who worry that renewables will ‘squeeze out’ nuclear. Rather than trying to meet these targets, the rogue department is trying to redefine nuclear and ‘carbon-capture’ coal as ‘renewable’. Knowing neither can be built before 2020, the ministry’s officials are trying to water down the targets so power plants would only have to be in the pipeline – not actually functioning – to count. Worse, in the spirit of market fundamentalism, we lobby Brussels to allow us to pay developing countries to do it for us. Business minister John Hutton’s energy vision: a half-built CCS coal plant in China contributing towards UK renewables targets.

As President Bartlet would say: ‘There are two types of politicians; the ones who try to say “yes” and the ones who try to say “no”.’

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008


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