Political will is a renewable resource

Germany has 200 times more solar power installed than the UK - and this is not because Germany gets

You may have seen the ads - enough to make any football fan's blood boil: "Germany 200, England 1". No, this was not a report from the World Cup qualifiers, it was a straightforward calculation of how much further forward Germany is in implementing the clean-energy revolution. Germany has 200 times more solar power installed than the UK - and this is not because Germany gets any more sun. The difference is down to a simple piece of legislation called a "feed-in tariff", which a coalition of environment groups and other campaigners is pressing the British government to adopt.

As this magazine went to press, a new Energy Bill was being debated in the Commons. Yet it seemed unlikely that the energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, would allow a cross-party amendment to introduce a feed-in tariff, even though 276 MPs have now signed up to an early-day motion supporting such a move. As Friends of the Earth's Dave Timms says: "The UK's feeble performance on renewable energy is a national disgrace. If we want families and businesses to tackle climate change by investing in clean technologies such as solar panels for their homes and offices they must get a guaranteed premium payment for all the renewable energy they generate."

The feed-in tariff owes its success to this very simplicity: all it does is mandate that electricity companies must buy renewably generated power at a substantial premium, and must continue to do so for at least 20 years. This makes investing in renewables much cheaper, because investors are guaranteed a premium-rate payback over a long time period. Countries which have introduced feed-in tariff laws, such as Spain, Italy and Germany, have seen their renewable power sectors boom. Meanwhile Britain languishes at the very bottom of the European clean-energy league.

Every year that passes without a feed-in tariff law represents a huge missed opportunity for this country. Germany's renewables sector employs 250,000 people, and had a turnover of ?24.6bn (£19.4bn) last year. The country is the world's number-one producer of solar panels, putting it in prime position to be the manufacturing powerhouse - with China at number two - of the clean energy revolution that transforms our energy systems as the world moves towards a low-carbon economy.

Under the Germans' approach, 13 per cent of their electricity comes from renewable sources, as opposed to a mere 5 per cent in the UK. And it is not just solar: Germany has ten times our installed wind-generating capacity, too. Portugal and Spain, despite having much less wind resource than the UK, have already shot past us in the clean energy race thanks to feed-in tariff laws.

The government does have a policy to increase renewables generation - it just doesn't work very well. Instead of guaranteeing a good price for clean energy over a long time period, Britain has a system of tradable "renewables obligation" certificates, which energy generators can buy and sell between themselves to ensure that they reach a government-mandated target. The system is cumbersome and allows only the large-scale players to make a profit - which is why the feed-in tariff is so important if household solar panels and other microgeneration technologies are ever really to take off. (This is particularly true now that the government has cut installation grants for domestic microgeneration.)

Hermann Scheer, the German MP who pioneered feed-in tariff law, complains the British system is "too bureaucratic". Instead of helping shift "power to the people" so that everyone with a roof can generate their own electricity at home, the government's policy seems designed to protect only the big energy suppliers, he says.

One of the objections is cost: higher prices are eventually passed on to consumers in the form of higher bills. But as Scheer says: "Each household pays ?24 [£19] a year more due to the feed-in tariff law." With 250,000 new renewable energy jobs, he jokes, "it is the cheapest job-creation programme ever". The price also seems a bargain compared to the costs of climate change, not to mention the problems of depending on rapidly depleting imported oil and gas supplies. So what is lacking to make this happen in Britain? Just political will - and as Al Gore is fond of remarking: "Political will is a renewable resource."

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery