The power to save Britain

How our island could be supplying Europe with green electricity. Plus Peter

It may not feel like it on a gusty grey day in Rhyl, but this country is blessed. Take a boat out into the choppy waters off the North Wales coast, and you can see why. Thirty bright white turbines spin continuously just five miles off the coast, producing enough electrical power to supply 40,000 homes with clean, green energy. The wind and waves seem limitless and powerful - and they are. If the UK had been more aggressive and far-sighted in developing renewable energy, we would already be exporting green electricity and wind turbines to Europe and further afield.

In renewable energy terms, we would be the Saudi Arabia of Europe. A full 40 per cent of the continent's wind blows across British shores, enough to meet all our energy needs and more. But instead of leading the world in renewable energy and at the same time cutting carbon emissions, the UK languishes close to the bottom of the European clean energy league. Just 2 per cent of our energy comes from renewable sources and the rest from dirty, climate-changing fossil fuels. This is the legacy of years of contradictory policies, conflicting priorities, ideological pig-headedness and government incompetence.

It's a story that shames Britain.

A good place to start is the government's Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP). This was launched in 2006 to provide grants to householders wanting to instal renewable generation technologies - from solar panels to small hydro schemes - on their properties. Ministers acknowledge that micro-generation could play a big part in our clean energy future, and that turning homes into mini power stations is good for energy security, household income and the environment. But what actually happened? Instead of kick-starting a whole new market sector, the government starved it of funds. A measly £12.7m was allocated, with a monthly cap. On the first day of each month all the available grants were snapped up within hours.

This stop-start approach led to frustrated householders and cash-strapped solar installation companies, many of which began to go bust. The number of grants given for solar hot water systems fell by half last year, and the number for micro wind turbines by two-thirds. For ground-source heat pumps, while 100 grants were made in the last three months of 2006, the equivalent number for 2007 was zero. For electricity, we managed to put only 270 solar panels on British roofs last year, while Germany installed 130,000.

Gordon Brown, first as chancellor, and now as Prime Minister, has successfully ensured that it makes no financial sense whatsoever for householders to invest in generating their own energy renewably. If you put up a solar photovoltaic panel in this country, you do it for altruistic reasons only: at present, you are guaranteed to lose money hand over fist.

Germany's renewables sector has rocketed, thanks to a system that guarantees long-term paybacks at above-market rates for cleanly generated power. This is called the "feed-in tariff", which has also successfully catapulted Spain and Portugal to the top of the European clean energy league. Portugal gets 39 per cent of its electricity from renewables and is aiming for 60 per cent by 2020. In stark contrast, the UK government continues to rule out feed-in tariffs, insisting instead on retaining its outdated Renewables Obligation system, a support mechanism which is so complicated and cumbersome that only the biggest players can make any money from it (or, indeed, even understand it).

The RO system reveals another classic new Labour problem: an obsession with the market. Instead of simply guaranteeing a good return for solar or wind electricity over a long enough time period to make this an attractive investment, the government insists on making the Renewable Obligation Certificates tradable. If a company doesn't meet its obligation to generate power renewably, it must buy certificates from another company that has produced a surplus. The result is long-term price uncertainty, which makes investment much more costly, due to the "risk premium" that must be added to any lending. The ROC system has been fiddled with so many times that the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) now opposes a feed-in tariff system, on the grounds that yet more policy uncertainty might scare off potential investors for good.

Lost business

This catalogue of failure has not only been bad for the climate, it has been bad for business. Britain might once have led the world in wind turbine development. But with no domestic market, production moved elsewhere, and today most turbines installed in this country are imported from Denmark. The leader in solar power is not Britain but Germany, which has pioneered a lucrative export industry in solar photovoltaic cells. In China, too, solar manufacturing is big business: the country's second-richest man leads a solar energy company. This is an energy sector which saw growth last year of roughly 40 per cent, and has attracted tens of billions in venture capital. None of that came to Britain. Instead of creating a brand new industry and thousands of jobs, British-based renewables companies have been going out of business.

Wind should already be our biggest single power source. The BWEA estimates that wind could generate 27 per cent of our electricity by 2020, which, combined with other renewables, could easily meet our EU-assigned target of 15 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Instead, wind accounts for just 1.5 per cent of UK electricity generation today (the equivalent figure in far less windy Denmark is 20 per cent, for Spain 8 per cent and Germany 5 per cent). That 1.5 per cent could be ramped up very quickly if the planning system worked in favour of renewables. According to the BWEA, 220 windpower projects are currently stuck in planning. If all received immediate consent, they could generate 9.3 gigawatts of electricity, enough for an estimated 5.25 million households. If the 39 projects that were refused planning permission last year had instead been allowed it, they could have provided power for 750,000 households, and prevented the emission of three million tonnes of CO2. (Anti-wind campaigners need to recognise their moral liability for these climate-changing emissions.)

While 39 projects were refused planning permission, just 26 projects went ahead. This year, we are level-pegging: seven wind applications have been approved and six refused. It can now take ten years for a windfarm project to get approved and built, and another five for it to get a grid connection (unlike in other countries, renewable generators here have to pay for their own grid connections). This does not look like a country on the fast track to a clean energy future. Indeed, power companies such as E.ON are pro posing to invest billions in hugely polluting coal power plants instead.

The government has proposed to reform the planning system to make it easier for windfarms to get the go-ahead. Environmentalists and conservationists are opposed to the reform, however, for the good reason that it would also make it easier for new motorways, power stations and airports to gain approval, and stifle local democracy in the process.

A greener government might have focused on reforming the planning system for renewable energy projects, gaining support from greens and electricity generators alike. Instead, in its enthusiasm for aviation and nuclear power, the government has bundled windfarms into a planning policy package that will be opposed by almost all. A missed opportunity.

There is some good news. The 1000MW London Array - which will generate enough power from wind for a quarter of London's households - has been given the go-ahead. Several other major projects are under way, and this year the UK will overtake Denmark as the largest offshore generator in the world. The UK also still leads in marine renewables (wave and tidal stream power). With 30 marine technology developers headquartered here, compared to only 15 in the rest of Europe, the UK is able to put its offshore operational skills learned from North Sea oil - now in long-term decline - to good use. At the end of last month the world's largest conference on wave and tidal stream energy, Marine 08, was held in Edinburgh. Tidal power would address the intermittency question: what to do when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Tidal power is predictable. Wave power is also more dependable. The more sources of energy we can call on, the less vulnerable we will be to losing power in any one sector.

Yet in marine renewables, too, the government has risked Britain losing its competitive edge. The world's first commercial-scale wave-generating array, while built by a UK-based company, is being launched off the Portuguese, not the British, coast. And, mirroring the disaster of the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund - supposed to support the fledgling sector with capital grants and other financial aid - has a tiny budget and a cap per project of £9m, far too little for any British design to make it past the prototype stage into commercial production. Once again, we are wasting a historic advantage.

With the right policy levers pulled, we could in the not-too-distant future be generating 20 per cent of all our electricity out at sea using wave and tidal power, and far more from onshore and offshore wind. We could lead the world in a new manufacturing sector and generate thousands of new jobs. We could have a zero-carbon electricity grid as early as 2030. We could also lead the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But, for this to happen, the government will need to admit that its policies have been a cala mitous failure and put clean energy at the top of its long-term agenda, before it is too late.

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 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496