Open Eye: Sitting on a green goldmine

Britain has the most environmentally-friendly power sources in Europe. So why don't we use them? We may, if a new campaign to sell green electricity succeeds, says Yvonne Cook
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The Independent Online
Dropping through your letterbox very soon - if it has not already - will be a glossy leaflet from the newly-deregulated electricity companies, offering to supply you with 'green' electricity.

Now free to compete for customers anywhere in the country, the suppliers are wooing the eco-consumer who, they believe, is prepared to pay a bit more to support power being generated from environmentally-friendly renewable sources.

Seven companies have launched 'green electricity' schemes so far and more are, so to speak, in the pipeline. Details vary from company to company, but the basic deal is this - you the consumer agree to pay us a specified premium on your bills (generally around 5 to 10 percent more) and we the supplier guarantee that all the extra money you pay will go towards generating energy in an environmentally-friendly way, which varies according to different schemes. The initiative is driven by the companies themselves, but an independent watchdog, the Energy Saving Trust, will monitor the schemes to ensure companies do what they promise.

Although few now quarrel with the idea that generating more power from 'renewables' - such as wind, wave/tidal, biomass - should be encouraged, the 'green electricity' push has come in for criticism. Why should funding be left to altruistic consumers rather than the government or the electricity companies themselves? In the USA, where the same process is further advanced, 'green electricity' has earned the derogatory label 'Gucci power' - a status symbol for the rich and hip.

One man at the heart of the debate is Dr Dave Elliott, director of the OU's Energy and Environment Research Unit, which has been flying the flag for renewables since the early '70s. Dave's credentials in the green energy field are undoubtedly why he was chosen as an advisor (along with the World Wide Fund for Nature) by Yorkshire Electricity when setting up its green electricity scheme. So presumably he's a supporter of the 'green electricity' schemes?

"I would prefer to see a consumer-wide resource-raising exercise - because, apart from anything else, it raises more money," he says. "The way it is being done now, means we are in effect asking a small group of consumers to subsidise the others. But it is also an educational exercise. Putting these leaflets through people's letterboxes is part of the general process of consciousness-raising."

Dave would encourage consumers who feel able to support green electricity schemes, but also advises them to look at the type of scheme on offer. All the schemes fall basically into two categories. With Type A, the extra money you pay goes directly to the purchase of electricity from a renewable resource; with Type B, it goes, less specifically, towards funding research or development connected with renewable energy projects.

It is a hard fact that electricity generated from renewable resources is currently more expensive, although as the technology develops prices are dropping. Ten years ago wind-generated electricity cost 11p per kilowatt/hour; today it can be around 2.5p, depending on the site. And the more people taking up 'green electricity', the greater the investment in it, and the more prices will drop.

Another hard fact is that government, having already had its fingers burned trying to impose Vat on fuel, is not about to impose a universal 'green premium' on domestic electricity bills to subsidise the development of wind farms. The hopes of Dave and other pro-greens for the adoption of green electricity are pinned on these small schemes - and on industry.

Mindful of its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2010, government has introduced a swingeing tax on business use.

A small proportion of this 'climate change levy' will go directly into energy efficiency schemes, including renewable energy companies. The snag is that, as it stands, there will be no relief from the levy for companies who use 'green electricity'. This is something EERU and other groups are working very hard with government to change.

"If companies were given tax relief for using green electricity it would change from being a small sector to a major player. Renewables could rip and roar ahead," Dave said. EERU will be putting forward this case to the Treasury's current consultation exercise.

The government is chary of suddenly unleashing a massive demand for green electricity, on the grounds that the small UK renewable sector hasn't the capacity to satisfy it. Behind this lies a sad, but familiar tale of neglect and squandered opportunity in an area in which Britain once led.

Says Dave: "Fifteen years ago we were leading in the technology of wind power. Now we have to buy the equipment from manufacturers elsewhere in Europe. The only thing we have a hope of competing in is the 'second wave' of renewables, wave and tidal power."

Make no mistake, he says, in energy terms this country is sitting on a gold mine. "Britain has more renewable energy sources than any other country in the world. We have 60 percent of all Europe's wind power. We have the biggest offshore wave resource. The biggest offshore tidal resource. The best bio-mass, thanks to our good soil and wet climate. Everyone in Europe is incredibly envious. They cannot understand why we are not developing it."

Green energy capacity won't be expanded overnight, not least because renewable sources are not without environmental problems themselves. Wind farms, for example, are regarded by some as an eyesore. Dave believes this is partly due to market pressures, which have forced windfarm developers to seek the most productive sites, regardless of their impact on the landscape. Whatever the cause, the result is that gaining planning permission for new wind farms has become an expensive and laborious process.

The future may lie out to sea. Giant offshore windfarms would spare Britain's beauty spots and benefit from the massive wind potential of the oceans. Technologically, they would be less of a challenge than building North Sea oilrigs. The prospect of row upon row of giant windmills bestriding the waves is a distant one, awaiting much greater investment. But if we are serious about the environment, alternatives to burning gas, coal and oil to produce energy will have to be found next century. As well as polluting 'acid rain', conventional power stations produce the greenhouse gases thought to be responsible for global warming. Britain's current target of reducing emissions by 2010 looks hard to achieve, but many experts believe that a minimum 60 percent reduction is needed in the long term to keep climate change in check.

If we fail, Britain could, ironically, be in need of a lot more power just to keep warm. While there are still arguments over how seriously we should take climate change, the 'worst case' scenario is very bleak indeed. Under some circumstances, scientists say, the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that gives these shores their moderate climate, could switch off. Quite suddenly, average temperatures would plummet by as much as 10 degrees C, making the British climate more like that of Iceland.

With green electricity, it could be a case of pay more now, save later.

Green career opportunities on video

Green energy is a growth industry with increasing career opportunities for graduates and postgraduates - and not only those from a technology background.

Openings are appearing in campaigning, sales, marketing, management and education, as well as on the technical side. Green energy initiatives by national government, the European Union and big business will mean an estimated half-a-million new jobs created across Europe over the next 10 years.

"A lot of people have developed skills in other fields. Renewables are an opportunity for them to apply those skills and feel they are doing something beneficial and worthwhile," says Adam Brown of the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) based at Harwell.

He is one of those featured in a new video, Careers in Green Energy, produced to highlight the training and career options available. Sponsored by the OU, ETSU, the DTI, Eastern Electricity and UNISON, it is available, price 14.95, from NATTA, the Energy and Environment Research Unit, Technology Faculty, Open University, Walton Hall, MK7 6AA. Please make cheques payable to NATTA. Telephone 01908 654638.