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Green energy is not such a breeze

March 26, 2009

David Wighton

One by one, the energy giants that hoisted green flags and trumpeted their conversion to renewables are ducking and diving and hiding behind the curtains.

Iberdrola, a big investor in wind farms in Spain and the owner of ScottishPower, is slashing its spending on renewables by 40 per cent. Shell said recently it would no longer invest in wind turbines, preferring to focus its efforts on new biofuel technology, while BP has opted out of the UK renewables market, deeming it to be a poor bet.

It is tempting to see the great push for renewable energy in Europe as a fair-weather phenomenon. The performance of Britain’s turbines is a case in point – for much of January they were operating at about 10 per cent of capacity.

That should be no surprise, given that periods of severe cold (or heat) coincide with lack of wind, but it doesn’t help when a utility is trying to deliver power into the grid, not to mention returns to its shareholders.

These issues are critical, because we need to begin building more power capacity today if we are to avoid blackouts by 2015 when we are committed to closing old coal-fired power stations.

People who can build these things are saying that they are not convinced. Shell last year pulled out of the London Array, a £3 billion wind farm in the Thames Estuary capable of supplying 750,000 homes. The remaining investors are hinting heavily that without more government bungs, the mills won’t spin.

Without reforms of the tortuous British planning process, the prospects for development of onshore windfarm looks bleak.

Everyone is openly looking at gas, which gets cheaper by the day, and utilities drool at the thought of coal, where the price has fallen so far that mines are closing in Australia and Russia. Gas is a short-term solution, but it cannot be the only option if we are to avoid a rising dependence on Russia for fuel.

All of this is embarrassing for a Government that likes to portray itself as the champion of green causes. But it is pointless for Ed Miliband, the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, to berate utilities for not building stuff that is uneconomic and, anyway, cannot be relied upon to deliver the power we need at the flick of a switch.

The Government needs to decide whether it is prepared to commit the nation to a very expensive energy future or whether it would rather hedge its bets and build a few coal-fired generators, just to keep the lights on.

 

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