Answering the curmudgeons, faultfinders and armchair engineers

The Head of Communications at RenewableUK, the trade association representing the wind, wave and tid

The Head of Communications at RenewableUK, the trade association representing the wind, wave and tidal industry, examines why the debate about wind energy has become so polarised.

When the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne gave his keynote speech to the British wind industry in at RenewableUK's annual conference in October, he rallied the troops by going on the attack. In an emphatic speech, he criticised the "curmudgeons and faultfinders who hold forth on the impossibility of renewables", describing them as "an unholy alliance of short-termists, armchairs engineers, climate sceptics and vested interests who are selling the UK economy short."

He vowed that renewable energy technologies would deliver "a third industrial revolution every bit as profound as the first two". It's quite a vision - and one that the wind industry is determined to realise.

10,600 people already work in the wind energy sector in the UK. A report by Cambridge Econometrics predicts that that will rise to nearly 90,000 people by 2021. That includes not only jobs constructing and maintaining onshore and offshore wind farms, but also the supply chain - manufacturers supplying a whole range of components, and building wind turbine towers by rolling massive sheets of steel into giant cylinders. In the wind industry, it's already being called the rebirth of British manufacturing.

And yet the wind industry receives a great deal of criticism, in some parts of the media at least. Myths abound about the alleged cost of supporting wind energy and how efficient it is. Statistics are plucked from thin air by anti wind farm campaigners and presented as fact by the press. Some national newspapers seem to have taken it upon themselves to launch the most vitriolic attacks on the wind industry as a matter of course, week after week. We can only guess at the agenda lying behind these attacks.

The war of words isn't just being fought out in the media. The battle over Britain's renewable future is taking place at the heart of Government

The recent announcement of a cut in financial support for solar energy (the feed-in-tariff) has highlighted what many of us campaigning on environmental issues already knew: the Coalition Government is deeply divided over the green agenda.

This year's growth figures are below the Treasury's most pessimistic predictions, and there is a sense of desperation in the Government's attempts to eliminate any expenditure it believes can be sacrificed. It is clear that this mood prompted the rapid review of the feed-in-tariff, and the cuts to support for large-scale renewables announced in October. The Government is nervous about the impact of rising energy prices on the economy - and rightly so. Fuel poverty is a growing issue, and especially as we move into the depths of winter, many of the less well-off and more vulnerable members of our society will find it increasingly difficult to heat their homes.

However, in choosing to cut support for renewables, the Government has chosen a target so tangential to the debate as to be irrelevant. According to the independent regulator Ofgem, support for all renewable energy sources (not just wind) adds about £20 onto an average annual domestic dual fuel bill (electricity and gas) of £1200. You don't need to be a mathematical genius to work out that something which comprises just one and a half per cent of your bill cannot be responsible for the near-doubling of domestic energy prices over the last ten years. The blame can largely be placed at the feet of rising fossil fuel wholesale prices - particularly gas.

Within Government, recognition of this fact goes across party lines, and both the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne (Lib Dem) and the Energy Minister Greg Barker (Tory) have been active in supporting technologies which can lessen our dependence on fossil fuel. Both the heavy cuts to solar, and the 10% cut to wind power support announced in October, could have been much worse. The treasury was seeking to remove what it perceived as a cost on consumers, freeing up their money to be spent elsewhere in the economy, generating demand and hence growth. But right now, people are understandably worried about the future, and are saving more disposible income than a year ago.

That growth will come in part from our burgeoning offshore wind industry, which will require tens of thousands of skilled workers, millions of tonnes of steel, and factories at port facilities around our coastline. It will generate demand, at a time when companies are cash-rich but reluctant to invest.
It will help grow our economy, not leave it to stagnate. The armchair engineers should get out of the house a bit more and join the green collar revolution.