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Sugar backs green energy

But wind farms are where the jobs are.

Alan Sugar. Photograph: Getty Images

Lord Sugar has today called on the government to set a target for the decarbonisation of Britain’s electricity sector by 2030 in a bid to clean up one of the country’s largest sources of carbon emissions and remove uncertainty for companies and investors in the sector.

Already a hotly debated topic in parliament, the coalition government has been rife with in-fighting since the end of last year, after Chancellor George Osbourne firmly rebuffed a suggestion from the Committee on Climate Change, championed by Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey, to set a target to cut the power sector’s carbon emissions from 500g of CO2 per kilowatt hour to 50g CO2/kWh by 2030.

Osbourne’s claim that such a bill would damage investment in Britain’s healthy oil and gas sector was rejected by Tim Yeo, the Tory energy committee chairman, who said at the time:

“If the carbon cuts do not come from the electricity sector then deeper cuts will need to be made elsewhere, and if the reductions are not made in the 2020s then they could become even more expensive,” and has since suggested an amendment to the energy bill which would force coal and gas-fired power plants around the country to close over the next 18 years, unless fitted with carbon capture and sequestration equipment.

Lord Sugar has now added his weight to the argument, claiming Britain risks falling behind in renewable energy investment and the economy could benefit hugely from spending on green energy. “This country needs jobs, and the renewable industry could help unlock our crippled manufacturing sector,” he said.

While it’s true Britain has undoubtedly benefitted from this kind of investment, most notably in wind energy, the extent to which it has aided our ailing manufacturing sector is perhaps being overstated. Siemens, Vestas, GE et al., the industry leaders in wind turbine manufacturing, all produce their wares overseas, which would do little to aid job creation and boost manufacturing in this country.

Where the difference could really be felt though is in the installation and operation of wind farms, of which there is currently a healthly pipeline of work approved to take place over the next decade.  Already a world leader in offshore wind power, the UK currently boasts 3,321MW of electricity generation capacity from 20 offshore wind farms, with a further 31GW worth of projects already leased to developers. The industry currently employs around 4,000 people, but with construction on numerous new projects due to start from 2014 onwards, this figure could swell substantially.

Despite the obvious benefits for the job market, without the government’s support for renewable energy, most types of green energy, particularly offshore wind, simply cannot compete with conventional energy sources on a cost/kWh basis. Offshore wind currently stands at around 15.0-16.9pence/kWh to generate, whereas the cost of gas-fired power generation is considerably lower at around 8.0pence/kWh.

It’s true that the cost of offshore wind will come down over time, but without a firm target for carbon reduction enshrined in law, plus a mountain of other economic problems facing the government, it’s difficult to see how this momentum can be maintained.

The problem is exacerbated by the current competitiveness of coal prices on the international market, thanks in large part to demand falling in the US as it has turned to shale gas. This has caused the UK’s share of electricity generated by coal to reach 40 per cent, the highest since 1996, with emissions rising by 3.9 per cent in the last year alone. The Environment Agency’s Lord Smith has called Britain “the dirty man of Europe” and insisted the government must act to curb its rising emissions from coal, or risk threatening its attempts to tackle climate change. “We’re in a dash for coal that’s completely unsustainable (and) the government must ensure it doesn’t continue,” he said.

It’s not only coal that is giving cause for concern, with UK firm IGas today announcing that as much as 170 trillion cubic feet of gas could be recoverable from fracking in northern England. IGas chief executive Andrew Austin said; “The licences (we own) have a very significant shale gas resource with the potential to transform the company and materially benefit the communities in which we operate…Our estimates for our area alone could mean that the UK would not have to import gas for a period of 10 to 15 years".

Shale gas is extracted from bed rock by the injection of high pressure water and sand, which critics argue can cause dangerous seismic activity. Already having revolutionised the energy market in the US, the controversial fracking technique could yet do the same in the British energy sector.

With such attractive conventional sources of energy available for investment, the government has a difficult task in balancing the economic benefits and the environmental imperative of clean green energy. It is clear on which side of the fence Lord Sugar sits; “As someone who has spent over 45 years developing technology, it is disappointing to see the government has not seized the opportunities offered by this innovative sector… Without a 2030 decarbonisation target, the energy bill will be aimless, leaving businesses and potential investors with prolonged uncertainty and no real commitment from the politicians who were supposed to be the greenest government ever.”

With Tim Yeo’s proposed decarbonisation amendment to the energy bill gaining support from Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, plus a number of Liberal Democrats, despite their official backing of the government’s position, the winds of change may yet force the Torys to follow suit and give investors the confidence to build on the ground work already achieved in the wind sector over the past decade.