There is no alternative: we must invest in renewable energy now

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The Independent Online

It seems strange to think that Britain – one of the very few advanced industrial economies that is self-sufficient in energy – could be facing a long-term energy crisis. Yet that is the inescapable conclusion of a review by Downing Street's Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) on Britain's future energy needs.

It seems strange to think that Britain – one of the very few advanced industrial economies that is self-sufficient in energy – could be facing a long-term energy crisis. Yet that is the inescapable conclusion of a review by Downing Street's Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) on Britain's future energy needs.

Britain is running out of natural gas, which accounts for 30 per cent of our electricity, and we may soon be forced to import gas from some of the least stable regions of the world. By 2006 we may have to import 15 per cent of our gas. For now we can import gas from Norway, but if present trends continue, we will become increasingly reliant on supplies from rather less secure countries such as Algeria or Russia.

But it is not just the potential for an energy gap that is exercising the Prime Minister's advisers. They also see the need to make large reductions in the use of carbon-based energy – coal, oil and gas – over the next few decades for environmental reasons. There are, as the RAC confirmed yesterday, no signs that our love affair with the car is waning, so it is even more important to get the carbon element in electricity generation down. For a government that is often castigated for short-termism, it is encouraging to see "blue-sky thinking" about how we might balance growth and the environment in 2020 or 2050. Even so, this energy review has been accompanied by a certain amount of spin.

According to Brian Wilson, the energy minister, "for the foreseeable future nuclear power has a part to play in meeting Britain's energy needs". Mr Wilson may well be right about that, in the sense that we cannot suddenly shut down an industry that provides a quarter of our energy needs. Defenders of atomic energy also have a point when they say that it produces no greenhouse gases. And we would be unwise to ignore the risks inherent in relying on natural-gas imports from North Africa and Russia.

The urgent task now, however, is to invest in renewable energy so that our reliance on nuclear energy is minimised and, in due course, removed – for the case against nuclear power remains as strong as ever, energy crisis or not. While there is such a thing as human error and while there remains the possibility of mechanical or electronic failure, however remote, the risks from an accident are too high. Nuclear plants are also, we can now see, peculiarly vulnerable to 11 September-style attack.

We should be wary of thinking that nuclear energy is the cheap green fuel of the future. Quite apart from the risk of another Chernobyl, nuclear technology routinely produces toxic waste that is impossible to dispose of safely. And, without vast public subsidy, it remains an uneconomic enterprise, as the PIU report makes clear.

So we have no alternative. We must invest in renewable energy. The problem is that it will take time, and money, to see the contribution made by hydroelectric, wind, wave, and solar power increase from the 2.5 per cent they now make to our energy supplies.

The good news is that other countries have been successful. Denmark generates 4 per cent of its energy through such means, and in Germany the figure is 8 per cent. The commercial viability of renewables also seems to be improving, with the recent announcement by Powergen that it is considering a plan to build a large wind farm in the Thames estuary. The PIU review suggests that the cost of making renewables responsible for supplying 20 per cent of our electricity needs would push bills up by 5 per cent or 6 per cent. That is a modest price to pay for energy that is both environmentally friendly and secure.

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