UK undermining renewable energy mandate

Last week the BBC and others reported that Britain’s government department responsible for business enterprise and regulatory reform, BERR, has been accused by environmentalists of reneging on European commitments to renewable energy.

Specifically, BERR was shown to be undermining a commitment to give renewables priority access to the national grid, using the argument that gas-fired power stations will be needed to back-up wind farms during periods when the wind is not blowing. Greenpeace called the government on this, and voiced the opinion that the real plan is to expand nuclear and coal. The UK government has no real interest in renewable energy, say the environmentalists.

That may be going a bit far, but experience has shown that much of the official support for renewables is untapped hot air. We mention wind energy, and for good reason. Of all the currently available renewable energy technologies, wind has the greatest potential for large-scale electricity generation. But we are talking serious infrastructure, with multi-turbine wind farms sited on land in locations such as the Western Isles of Scotland and the Shetland Islands, or offshore.

The problem, however, is transmitting the electricity generated from wind farms to the national grid. Without priority access to the grid, the chances of such initiatives succeeding are nil.

Already we’ve seen the Isle of Lewis wind farm project shelved, and Lang Kames in Shetland could be going the same way. Environmentalists are pointing the finger at BERR, but the reality is more complex and multi-faceted. Public support is lacking, various, often competing, government departments are involved, there is much opportunistic party politicking, and interference from agencies such as the Crown Estates threatens to derail plans for large-scale wind projects in remote parts of the British Isles.

“What renewable generators want is quicker access to the grid, not priority access,” says a BERR spokesman. Nonsense. In the case of Lang Kames, the project cannot enter its final development phase without assured access to the grid at an affordable price. Without this the investment risk would be too great to bear.