Red tape strangles Whitehall's plans to boost green energy

'Dire' bureaucratic delays and foot-dragging dog the PM's aims for more renewable power in the UK

Geoffrey Lean,Environment Editor
Sunday 14 December 2008 01:00

Penny-pinching and red tape are suffocating government plans for a rapid increase in the amount of renewable energy used in Britain.

The plans – a cornerstone of ministers' strategy to combat climate change – set out to multiply the proportion of the country's energy provided by renewables by an ambitious five times in just 12 years. But they have yet to make headway because of official foot-dragging.

A government fund set up three years ago to encourage the development of wave and tide power has yet to provide a single penny to any device designed to tap the sea's energy. Civil service obstruction is holding up the deployment of rooftop wind turbines, despite a personal assurance from the Prime Minister that the problem had been solved. And grants for solar power have been cut back.

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Environment Secretary, is planning to announce this week that he will introduce a Private Member's Bill to clear these obstructions, after coming high in the annual ballot for such Bills last week.

He said yesterday: "The situation is dire. A whole series of bureaucratic blockages are imperilling the rapid development of renewables in Britain."

The revelations come at the end of the most important two weeks for tackling climate change this year, both in Britain and globally. In the early hours of yesterday, the latest round of international negotiations on a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol ended after making little progress.

The talks, in the Polish town of Poznan, were not expected to achieve much – largely because of the hiatus in US policymaking caused by the post-election transition – and amply lived down to expectations. They decided on little more than to set up a fund (which has almost no money in it) to help poor countries adapt to climate change, and to lay out a programme for negotiations next year, leading to a make-or-break December session in Copenhagen, billed as the last chance to take serious measures to limit global warming before it runs out of control.

If a treaty is to be agreed there, enormous progress will have to be made from last week's talks, with rich countries agreeing to cut emissions of greenhouses gases by some 40 per cent by 2020 and poor ones undertaking at least to limit the growth of their pollution. In one of the few breakthroughs at Poznan, Mexico pledged to halve its emissions by 2050, and delegates are hoping that the US president-elect, Barack Obama, will live up to his promise to breathe new life into the negotiations when he takes office.

As the talks were ending European leaders confirmed that EU countries, as a whole, would increase the proportion of energy provided by renewables to 20 per cent by 2020. Britain's share of this commitment is to get 15 per cent of its energy in this way.

Ministers accept this is an "extremely challenging" task since the country now achieves only 3 per cent – the third lowest in Europe after Luxembourg and Malta – despite having the best resources. But Gordon Brown has repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to achieve it, fighting off resistance from John Hutton, the minister previously responsible for energy, and replacing him with the more progressive Ed Miliband.

Still, official obstruction continues (see panel). The delay on rooftop wind is particularly puzzling because Mr Brown wrote a letter on 27 August to David Gordon, the head of one of the main firms producing the turbines, to say the issue was resolved.

Mr Gordon says his firm, Windsave, has 6,500 orders and 25,000 inquiries awaiting the official go-ahead. And a survey of local authorities by the Micropower Council has found only three upheld noise complaints from the several thousand turbines already installed.

The reduction in solar grants has had a similarly chilling effect. Sharp, the country's only manufacturer of the panels, says that only one 50th of its year's production is installed in Britain; the rest is exported to countries with more encouraging policies.

Power play: Water, wind, sun... and hot air

Wave and tide The Government's £50m Marine Renewables Deployment Fund has not given any money to support any device since being set up in 2005. It requires three months of operating experience before it releases funds, whereas the help is needed to get schemes to that point.

Rooftop windmills These do not need planning permission, subject to noise limits agreed months ago by ministers and industry, to make them half as quiet as a gas boiler. Officials have resisted, saying they should be almost four times quieter still. The industry says it cannot achieve this.

Solar power Government grants to encourage householders to install solar electric panels on roofs were rationed, then reduced by two-thirds just as they were taking off. So, only 270 were installed in Britain last year, compared with 130,000 in Germany.

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