A view from the ground

Matthew Spencer left his life as a metro-wonk to save the world, one cow pat at a time

Three years ago I left my London life and a job running Greenpeace energy campaigns to oversee the renewable energy agency for south-west England. When I moved to Devon, renewables were still a fringe issue. At my first local dinner party I was assumed to be an anti-capitalist. No risk of that now that David Cameron has promised us a wind turbine on his roof.

In a neat reversal of roles I've often found myself advising decision-makers to take the claims of campaigners opposing renewable energy schemes with a pinch of salt and to listen to the silent majority shown by polls to be in favour. Does reason prevail? Not usually. In my three years I've witnessed councils refuse planning permission for 11 renewable energy schemes and approve just three.

It's a very British quirk that most of the important decisions on the future of energy and the planet's atmosphere are made by committees of unpaid district councillors whose main activity is approving loft extensions. Inevitably, many of them feel out of their depth when dealing with multi-megawatt power schemes.

Watching earnest renewable energy developers face a planning committee used to be like watching a turkey shoot. But things are improving. Nowadays it is common to have two or three councillors out of perhaps ten vote in favour and to hear a genuine debate about how to respond to climate change. A couple of months ago we witnessed the marvellous sight of all three main political parties in Bristol falling over themselves to be the most in favour of a proposed wind scheme.

Despite the slow progress, people are developing new ways of generating power and heat from nature. Wind companies are diversifying into wave energy. A tidal-stream developer is planning the world's first tidal farm in the Bristol Channel (this is a different project from the controversial proposal for a Severn barrage).

Farmers, being practical types, have produced some of the most innovative approaches I've seen, adapting muck spreaders to plant energy crops, digesting cow pats to make methane for generating green electricity, fermenting wheat to make bioethanol to displace petrol.

Metropolitan policy wonks can find it hard to imagine this diversity or the difficulty of delivering national policy on the ground. I should know. But seeing is believing.

Matthew Spencer is chief executive of Regen SW, the renewable energy agency for south-west England

Read more from the New Statesman 'Heat and Light' energy supplement at


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