Knocking the wind out of the energy debate

The UK government department in charge of energy is strangling urgently needed generation schemes in red tape, precaution and ceaseless consultation.

James Woudhuysen

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This week’s announcement of plans to surround Britain with turbines mounted on the seabed is just the latest in a series of what Tony Blair used to call ‘eye-catching initiatives’ from the UK Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) in the field of alternative energy. The plans for offshore power are not a practical alternative to nuclear power, and planning squabbles about both the marine and the onshore environment will drive up the cost and delay the implementation of Labour’s sea wall of windmills.

Not a week goes by at BERR, it seems, without secretary of state John Hutton and energy minister Malcolm Wicks outlining a big green ‘bonanza’, as the Financial Times described Hutton’s latest outburst. On 10 December, at a Berlin conference for European energy industrialists, Hutton announced his hope that up to 25 Gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power can be added to the 8GW that ‘could be operational by around 2014’. This would amount to Britain, in just 13 years’ time, being able to make wind the source of all the electricity flowing to its homes (1).

That sounds ambitious. After all, today the UK has about 76GW of electricity generation equipment installed. In the past 12 months, BERR has also granted consent to offshore wind projects at Walney (450MW), Thanet (300MW), Greater Gabbard (500MW) and London (1GW).

Nor is offshore wind BERR’s only ploy. On 21 November, Hutton announced planning consent for the world’s biggest biomass plant, a 350MW facility in Port Talbot, south Wales: when ready in 2010, it will burn North American wood chips (‘from sustainable sources’, naturally) every day for 25 years (2). On 30 October, Malcolm Wicks gave consent to EDF Energy for the construction and operation of a 1,270MW gas-fired power station at West Burton, Nottinghamshire, provided that the plant can be retrofitted with carbon capture technology ‘should that be necessary in the future’ (3).

But wait a minute. Even if all of Hutton’s offshore turbines are built in time for 2020 (unlikely), and ran 24 hours a day (impossible), they would barely amount to the 20-25GW of new power stations that the government’s own Energy White Paper, published in May 2007, says will be needed by 2020 – and certainly not the 30-35GW it says will be required by 2030 (4).

What is being agreed in all these announcements is not government action, but rather yet more planning interrogations. What Hutton did in Berlin, in fact, is launch a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the seas surrounding the UK, ‘paving the way for a possible “third round” of wind energy development and beyond’. This is a ‘draft’ plan for a ‘potential’ major expansion in offshore wind, and will be subject to the outcome of the Strategic Environmental Assessment.

In the housing sector, planning used to mean planning for more houses, but today it means preventing new houses being built. It is the same with energy. The government now pursues offshore wind in the hope that it can avoid the fate of large onshore wind devices, which are caught in interminable objections by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and other aesthetically minded environmentalists. But New Labour exercises in planning and consultation already promise to kill nuclear energy stone dead, and will likely do the same for offshore wind.

It is a modern green myth that New Labour is committed to nuclear power. As spiked pointed out at the time of the government’s July 2006 Energy Review, New Labour has left nuclear development up to the private sector to decide about (5). Now, as 2007 draws to a close, Greenpeace has, for the second time this year, engaged the law firm and leading counsel Harrison Grant to declare any official sympathy for nuclear power ‘unlawful’, given that a second public consultation on nuclear is still in process. Indeed, Greenpeace has threatened to call for a judicial review of the government’s conduct.

The mess BERR finds itself in with regard to nuclear power is not an accident. Over the past 10 years, New Labour has failed to introduce serious regulatory reform. We can now expect the sweaty palms of regulation, rather than the decisive smack of firm government, to detain offshore wind. Sites will not be decided on till 2009. There will be a big row over the effect of turbines on marine life: already the RSPB worries that they will ‘kill lots of birds, they scare off whales and dolphins and fish’ (6). Indeed, the RSPB insists that Hutton’s announcement ‘underlines the need for a proper planning system for our seabeds’ (7), despite the fact that, under The Crown Estate Act 1961, the quaintly named The Crown Estate is landowner of the UK seabed and areas of foreshore.

There will be planning and yet more planning. And there will be another big row about the environmental impact of the onshore transmission networks that will be needed to bring the offshore power to human beings. Already civil servants are drawing up a regulatory regime relating to offshore-to-onshore connections, and, we are told, ‘a response to the recent consultation will be published by BERR shortly’. Meanwhile, the government’s unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission, announced earlier this year, has yet to name its oh-so-independent members, let alone take a position on large-scale wind power.

New Labour’s fanfares are big, but its mentality is small-minded. ‘I do not want in 20 years’ time to find that whether the lights go on in the morning is down to some foreign government’, said Hutton, justifying offshore wind in a thoroughly autarchic, Little Englander fashion – and conveniently forgetting how it was Tony Blair’s regime that, just a few years ago, shackled Britain’s gas supply future to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Yes, the mentality really is small-minded. In his Berlin speech, Hutton announced that he will chair an ‘enhanced’ Renewable Advisory Board (RAB), so as to advise the government on how it might reach the EU’s targets for renewable energy in 2020. But what is the policy of the RAB? It prefers microgeneration on a house-by-house basis to large-scale, offshore windpower (8).

Windpower won’t be cheap. BERR publishes what appears to be a single webpage of ‘background’ on the economics of offshore wind, blithely rating its current cost at £50 per megawatt hour (MWh), compared to a current new-build cost for a gas turbine, such as that at West Burton, of just £18-24 per MWh. And that’s before we factor in the costs of all the committees that will delay offshore wind, no doubt with considerable adroitness and not a little sanctimony.

Just a look at BERR’s ‘Energy Group’ of 29 civil servants is enough to cause concern. Just two of them look after ‘Emerging Energy Technologies’ and ‘Cleaner Fossil Fuels & Hydrogen’. The others deal in strategy, planning, bills, market instruments, regulatory framework, consultations, licensing and liabilities (9).

In short, BERR is a department devoted to everything – except actually doing something serious about energy supply.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. As part of spiked‘s ‘Future of Energy’ debate, Malcolm Grimston argued that nuclear was the only proven, low-carbon technology. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Plans for a major expansion of offshore wind – Hutton, BERR, 10 December 2007

(2) Britain to build the world’s biggest biomass plant, BERR, 21 November 2007

(3) Go-ahead for gas fired power station, West Burton, Nottinghamshire, BERR, 30 October 2007

(4) Meeting the Energy Challenge, Department of Trade and Industry, May 2007

(5) A self-defeating argument for nuclear power, by Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen

(6) Wind could power all homes, BBC News, 10 December 2007

(7) Wind farm plans ‘bold but pricey’, BBC News, 10 December 2007

(8) The Role of Onsite Energy Generation in Delivering Zero Carbon Homes, Renewables Advisory Board

(9) Wind background, BERR

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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