Leading article: Wind is the revolution needed in this country

Renewable power is a great environmental and economic opportunity

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

The country might be frozen stiff at the moment but the UK wind revolution is, finally, beginning to turn. Yesterday the Government unveiled successful bids for nine new offshore wind farms in British waters. Stretches of sea around the UK, from the Moray Firth to the Bristol Channel, are to host large arrays of wind turbines.

These farms are projected to generate up to 32 gigawatts of power by 2020, a quarter of the UK's electricity needs. Next comes the planning and consent process. Providing those hurdles are cleared, construction on the new farms can begin in 2014.

Not everyone is optimistic. Some analysts are doubtful about how these projects will be financed, pointing to a dearth of bank lending and the effect of the falling exchange rate on costs. The fact that the turbine manufacture industry is dominated by two firms is also regarded as a potential problem.

But these adverse economic conditions should fade over time. The exchange rate should eventually stabilise. And other turbine manufacturers are likely to enter the market over the coming years for a share of the lucrative action. Meanwhile, the Government's Renewables Obligation, which specifies that a certain proportion of our energy consumption must be from renewable sources, should help Britain over the wind farms "cost hump".

Yesterday's announcement was accompanied by plentiful hot air from ministers. The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, argued that the news "establishes nothing less than the largest market in the world for offshore wind". Gordon Brown went still further, claiming "our policies in support of offshore wind energy have already put us ahead of every other country in the world".

If only that were true. The reality is that we are well behind nations such as Germany, Denmark and Spain when it comes to renewable energy. The UK has installed wind power capacity of four gigawatts, compared with 25 gigawatts in Germany. What makes this even more pathetic is that Britain is exceptionally well placed geographically to harvest the ambient energy of the winds.

Still, it would be silly not to acknowledge that things are finally moving in the right direction. The present deep freeze does not mean that global warming has gone away. Northern Europe might be experiencing Arctic-like conditions but other parts of the globe, notably Alaska, Canada and the Mediterranean, are unseasonably warm. And what really matters, as climate scientists have been at pains to point out, is not the extremes, but the trend. And the trend over the past century is unambiguously one of a warming global climate.

This week's spike in demand for gas and the alarming restrictions in supply have emphasised our reliance on imported energy, much of it from politically unstable parts of the world. One of the great opportunities offered by the twin dangers of energy insecurity and climate change is that it will encourage us to produce a greater share of our own power. Electricity generation can become a national industry.

A renewables drive will cut our national carbon emissions and create jobs, not only in manufacturing turbines, but in maintenance services too. The wind can power us not only out of our carbon dependency, but also into an era of green economic growth. The sooner those turbines start turning the better.

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