There were always two strands to the case for green energy investment. The most obvious focused on environmental concerns. But the second, no less compelling argument, was an industrial one. Not only does the decarbonisation of Britain’s power supplies offer the tantalising prospect of thousands of “green jobs”; our all-new industrial sector might also get ahead of international rivals and corner a burgeoning global market.
So much for the vision. Amid recession, Treasury belt-tightening and soaring energy bills, enthusiasm for pricey renewable infrastructure lost some of its lustre. The Chancellor in particular, spooked by the scale and cost of Britain’s future energy requirements, has been pushing shale gas and further exploitation of dwindling North Sea hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, successive Budgets have whittled away at green subsidies. Indeed, last week George Osborne set out plans to freeze the carbon-price floor and extend government help for firms struggling to pay renewables levies, prompting despair at yet more proof of the hollowness of David Cameron’s pledge to lead “the greenest government ever”.
Hopes of a green-energy industrial base should not be abandoned, however. Indeed, the British wind sector took a major step forward yesterday with a commitment from Siemens to build a £160m turbine factory and separate installation facility in Hull – creating 1,000 jobs directly and many thousands more in companies that will supply the plants.
The move is unequivocally good news for the Humber region, of course, in the immediate expansion of the local labour market and also in establishing the real prospect of its transformation into the hub of next-generation engineering. After all, where Siemens leads, others will likely follow.
But there is a wider benefit here, too. Renewable energy provokes visceral ire in many on the political right, largely because of assumptions about cost. Evidence that, costly or not, there are tangible economic benefits – of just the kind that our services-heavy economy needs – might help tilt the balance. We can only hope.