Britain is being powered by record levels of green energy, after a surprise increase in electricity generated from wind, sun and waves. Renewables accounted for 11 per cent of the UK's electricity in the first three months of 2012, compared with 7.7 per cent from January to March 2011.
There were big rises in power from onshore wind farms, while generation from hydroelectric and bioenergy plants also rose sharply, putting Britain much closer to meeting its legally binding commitment to get 15 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. The increases could also go some way to solving the looming energy crisis, as decades-old nuclear, coal and gas power stations are taken out of service.
The latest figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that gas accounted for 27 per cent of electricity generated in the first quarter of 2012, its lowest level in the past 14 years. High gas prices were blamed. Coal accounted for 42 per cent, up by a fifth, while nuclear fell from 19 to 17 per cent.
Onshore and offshore wind generation was up by around 50 per cent year-on-year. Hydroelectricity output was 43 per cent higher between January and March 2012 than a year earlier, and thermal renewables rose by 20 per cent. Solar, wave and tidal grew by more than 800 per cent, but remain the smallest renewables sector with most technologies still in their infancy.
Gordon Edge, of the trade body RenewableUK, claimed the figures were proof that "green growth is beginning to take hold".
Joss Garman, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "Britain is now in prime position to become the Saudi Arabia of the global offshore wind industry. The cost of wind power is falling fast so if ministers don't make the wrong decision over the next few months – and if they avoid a risky bet on a new dash for more gas burning – then we could all reap the benefits of a strong home-grown clean energy boom with stabilised energy bills, new jobs and industries, and reduced carbon emissions."
Major progress in renewables risks being undermined by a cabinet row over imminent cuts to some subsidies between 2013 and 2017. Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, is planning a 10 per cent reduction in subsidies for onshore wind, but George Osborne is reported to favour a cut of up to 25 per cent. With the Renewables Obligation Certificate regime due to expire in 2017, there are fears that uncertainty over its replacement could spook investors. Shaun Kingsbury, of the private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy, warned MPs that "if things continue to slow andmore detail comes out that makes it more complex, then you will see people stopping development spend". The Government claims its Energy Market Reform Bill will attract the £150bn-£200bn needed to overhaul the national grid and replace ageing nuclear and coal power stations. "Our ageing infrastructure has not been invested in for 30 years," said a government source. "If we don't fix it, the lights go out."
The surprise rise in green energy production at the start of this year builds on strong growth in 2011, when renewables generated 34,410 GWh, up a third on 2010. In 2009, just 3 per cent of energy consumption in the UK came from renewables. Capacity grew by 36 per cent last year.
Charles Hendry, the climate change minister, said: "This shows that the UK is powering forward on clean and secure energy and is a very attractive place to invest."
Britain's carbon emissions also fell, down 7 per cent, according to the Committee on Climate Change, but only 0.8 per cent of the drop is believed to be linked to climate change measures.
The figures would appear to bolster, at least in part, the coalition's stated ambition to be the "greenest government ever". However, there are continuing calls from some sections of the Tory party for an end to state subsidy for green technology, which, coupled with apparently anti-green rhetoric from the Chancellor, have fuelled doubts about the Government's commitment to the low-carbon agenda.
Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project who is developing plans for a £30m geothermal plant on the site in Cornwall, said there must be more focus on the economic benefits of low-carbon technology. "People like me have accidentally caused problems in the debate. It has been sold as a solution to climate change as opposed to it just being a bloody good industry to get in to,"he conceded.
A group of pro-green Conservative MPs – dubbed Turquoise Tories – are urging Downing Street to realise that support for the renewables sector is "not about tree-hugging but about jobs, growth and keeping the lights on". Last year, 101 Tory MPs urged David Cameron to slash the £400m-a-year subsidy for onshore wind farms. In response, the Prime Minister insisted they had to be part of a "balanced UK electricity mix". But, weeks later, Greg Barker, the energy minister, said there were sufficient turbines built or approved in the planning process to meet Britain's needs. Changes to subsidies for photovoltaic solar panels also sent shockwaves through the industry after strong take-up from the public.
Paul Barwell, of the Solar Trade Association, called for "steadier growth over the next three years – without any nasty surprises". More than 250,000 people have put solar panels on their roofs since the launch of the feed-in tariff scheme. The Renewable Energy Association estimates that the sector is already worth £12.5bn and employs 110,000 people, but this could rise to 400,000 by 2020. Gaynor Hartnell, head of the association, said: "The increasing use of our own renewables as opposed to increasing our energy imports will deliver a more energy-secure future, as well as keeping jobs and wealth here in the UK."