Vote of confidence in future of rubbish-to-power brokers

Energy: Government invests in new 'green' technology to help meet needs
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

A boost for renewable energy, including wind farms and electricity-generating waste incinerators, was announced by the Government yesterday.

Bids will be sought from the private sector for a further 500 megawatts of electrical power to be provided by non-fossil fuel and non-nuclear sources. This is equivalent to about half the output of a large, conventional power station.

The companies whose bids succeed will be guaranteed a stable price for their electricity for 15 years, set above today's market price for power. This renewables subsidy is paid for by electricity consumers, and it adds just over one per cent to their bills.

The winning projects picked by the Government will be those which demand the lowest subsidy and succeed in convincing the Department of Trade and Industry that they have sound prospects of financial backing. Bids will be invited from next month but the winners - expected to number around 100 - will not be announced until 1997.

This is the fourth time the Government has staged such an auction and it is leading to a rapid expansion in UK renewable energy. The first wind farm opened four years ago in Cornwall and now there are 30 of them, with about 500 electricity-generating turbines. Yet they still generate little more than one thousandth of Britain's power.

But the form of renewable energy which has expanded most rapidly is the use of inflammable methane gas, generated by rotting rubbish in landfill tips. Collected in a network of perforated pipes buried in the waste, the gas is then used to fuel engines attached to electricity generators.

For the first time, some of the subsidy contracts in this auction round will be awarded to combined heat and power projects - power stations which also provide hot water and space heating for thousands of nearby homes and businesses via underground hot water pipes.

These are expected to take the form of three or four large municipal rubbish incinerators. If they provide heat as well as electricity, they can work much more efficiently and convert far more of the energy in the rubbish into a useful product.

The Government set up the subsidy scheme for renewables because they cause either no pollution or much less than fossil fuels and they give Britain a greater diversity of energy supplies. Its target is for 1,500 megawatts of new renewables to be installed by the year 2000, in addition to the 1,500 megawatts of hydroelectric power schemes which Britain already has.