MPs cast doubt on viability of wind power: Renewable energy research attacked

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The Independent Online
DOUBTS have been cast on the viability of wind-powered electricity generation in the UK and on government involvement in developing it.

The influential Public Accounts Committee, the cross- party committe of MPs that acts as value-for-money watchdog, yesterday criticised as unjustified much of the pounds 340m spent on renewable energy research in the last 17 years by the Department of Trade and Industry and the now-defunct Department of Energy.

The DTI also comes under fire for being too slow to abandon research totalling pounds 40m into extracting energy from 'hot dry rocks', involving extracting heat from the beneath the earth's surface, once it had proved unfruitful.

But the MPs accepted that gas generated from waste landfills was 'promising' and close to being commercially viable. They also conceded that the programmes had been instructive and that the Government had international obligations to help reduce global warming.

The Government wants renewable energy sources to provide, by 2000, new electricity at a level equivalent to 5 per cent of the 1992 total power supply, and to compete successfully without subsidy by 2005. Funding for projects comes through Non-Fossil Fuel Orders which oblige power suppliers to buy a certain proportion of non-fossil fuel. The scale of the subsidy could reach pounds 150m a year before tailing off.

But the MPs said: 'We are concerned that of the projects approved in principle under the first two Non-fossil Fuel Orders, less than 50 per cent are currently producing electricity and half of the projects approved under the second Order may never go into production, largely because of planning refusals.

'We consider that it is very doubtful that the relatively modest increases in new electrical generation justify the large sums spent.'

The department told the MPs that 70 per cent of the pounds 54m wind power programme had been spent directly on helping UK wind turbine manufacturers, but the MPs were 'disappointed' to learn that 84 per cent of the technology had been imported.

Research and development into renewables was one of the areas of DTI spending targeted by Michael Portillo, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in a strident letter, leaked to the press, to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

Robert Sheldon, the Labour chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said the department had spent a lot of money unnecessarily and had subsidised other countries. He suggested in a BBC Radio interview that channelling resources towards manufacturers 'would certainly be a more interesting way to spend this sort of money'.

Mike Harper, of the British Wind Energy Association, said: 'Both in terms of clean electricity and in terms of developing a UK manufacturing base, wind energy is a remarkably good buy.' He said the report flew in the face of two earlier inquiries.

The report makes disappointing reading for those who believed wave power could be a viable future energy resource. While pounds 19m has been spent on research, the DTI has found the economics 'very adverse'.