Getting real on renewables

We need to replace the can’t-do culture when it comes to to green energy, argues Labour's Peter Hain

Labour has achieved a tremendous amount to accelerate renewable energy. But, despite spending constraints, we will have to do much better in future.

Strong leadership will be needed to overcome obstacles placed in the way of progress by officialdom and by those environmentalists and politicians who parade their green credentials but then oppose practical projects. We need a can-do culture to replace the can't- or won't-do culture around renewable energy among civil servants and other public officials.

As secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 2005-2007, I introduced bold measures such as changing the building regulations. From next month, all new developments will be required to have micro-generation schemes designed in. If that were to be extended across Britain, it would create a vibrant market for small-scale renewables, create jobs, cut energy bills and reduce emissions.

I also created a substantial new fund of grants to enable green technologies to be installed in people's homes, including free solar panels for pensioners in social housing. At £60m for a population of 1.7 million, that would be £2.2bn for the UK as a whole.

The government needs to do more of this kind of spending. It has also to face up to opposition from officials. A classic example in Northern Ireland was the planned marine current turbine in Strangford Lough, which has a fast and furious tidal flow. Against considerable resistance, I insisted on proceeding. It is hugely exciting - the first of its kind in the UK - and should be a prototype for other coastal locations.

It is excellent that the government is proceeding with a feasibility study into a barrage across the Severn Estuary, which would generate fully 5 per cent of UK electricity needs, the biggest renewable energy project by some distance on our island. But this, too, has met with resistance from the Environment Agency, Liberal Democrats and Friends of the Earth, who favour tidal lagoons that would generate barely half the energy.

Similarly, David Cameron parades his green credentials, hugging huskies in the Arctic and so on. But, given a serious practical project such as the Gwynt-y-Môr windfarm ten miles off the North Wales coast, with 250 turbines capable of powering half a million homes, he denounced it as a "giant bird blender". Clean energy projects - especially wind - produce "nimby" reactions from local people, MPs and councils. They speak green but act otherwise.

Government at all levels has to raise its game. Decisions need to be taken more quickly; streamlining planning for energy projects is vital to overcome nimbyism. This is not about riding roughshod over local views. It is about prioritising renewables. Britain has an abundance of natural resources, with a coastline and landscape that lend themselves to a variety of off- and onshore wind and other renewable energies such as wave and tidal.

It is time we got real about renewables.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour energy minister

Numbers that don't add up

£470m cost of building Sellafield Mox nuclear fuel plant. Opened in 2002, it has produced almost nothing since

2:1 ratio of building costs for Sizewell B nuclear power station to wind turbines for same energy output

150 kWh/m2yr energy consumed by a UK "ultra-low energy" home

140 kWh/m2yr energy consumed by average German home

8m tonnes of CO2 will be emitted each year by planned coal-fired plant in Kent - the first to be built in 30 years

Research by

Edmund Gordon