Renewable energy is officially mainstream. Once the realm of tree-hungers and hemp-wearing hippies, now the clean and green revolution is on everybody’s radar. Financial giants Bloomberg have reported that renewables investment has overtaken that poured into fossil fuels; the Pope has weighed in as an ardent supporter of renewable energy; and the Germans even have a word for it (Energiewende). Recent figures bear out this tidal wave of positivity: in the UK, renewable energy is now consistently generating 20% of the electricity market (on a recent sunny and windy Saturday this topped 43%) and last year, 80% of new capacity installed in the EU was renewable.
Despite this, many in the UK-based renewables industry remain anxious, for lying ahead are the murky waters of a new government. With the election of a majority Conservative parliament comes the prospect of a full-scale review of renewables policy, with all areas up for grabs.
The initial signs from the Tories have not been promising. One of their very first big policy announcements was to signal the end of subsidies for onshore wind farms. The more optimistic observers are keeping their fingers crossed that this move is a concession to NIMBY voters in marginal seats who were wooed by this election manifesto promise. Others worry this move is a sign of things to come, and that solar energy may be next in the cross-hairs of new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd.
It is inevitable that a major focus of the new regime will be the cost associated with renewable energy. Subsidy reduction and greater scrutiny of spending appear unavoidable. However, given that (according to IMF figures) fossil fuels subsidies are 100 times greater than those afforded to onshore wind, this does seem a little bit like eating an apple after a six day fast-food binge. Furthermore, it is recognised that the greatest cost savings would be achieved by focussing on growing the two most developed (and most hated by the Daily Mail) technologies-onshore wind and solar.
Another area in which the Conservative government will have to engage in some serious soul-searching is planning law. With their recent announcement about onshore wind came the news that all wind-related planning consents are now mandated to be approved by locally elected commitees. Whilst this policy undoubtably wrested some of UKIP-inclined anti-wind brigade back into Tory arms, if extended to other areas it would undoubtedly impact upon the prospects of shale gas. Recent events in Lancashire demonstrate that “complete community sign-off” will be nigh on impossible to come by, though sceptics amongst us might not expect Tory localism to stretch this far…
A key consideration for wannabe Mystic Megs is that we actually don’t know who the government will be governing in five year’s time. Continued devolution in Scotland and Wales could see markedly different approaches to renewable energy across the Celtic borders. For example, the SNP are notably in favour of heavy investment in green energy.
And finally, I couldn’t gaze out into the future without mentioning the pending EU referendum. The much cited legally-binding 20: 20: 20 targets pin the government to generating 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020; however, these will only be enforceable if the UK remains in the EU.
In truth, and in the absence of any positive news for renewable energy in yesterday’s budget, we will probably have to wait until the autumn before any more meaningful announcements are forthcoming from DECC. Until then, all eyes remain on Amber Rudd and whatever her next move will be.