Government urged to increase target for renewable energy

Proponents of renewable energy have welcomed a report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy which suggests that the Government should increase its target of 1,000MW of renewables capacity by the end of the century to 3,000-4,000MW. The Committee also advocates changes to the present system for promoting investments in the renewables. But supporters of energy-from-waste and tidal power will not be happy with the report.1

The report is an important contribution to the present phase of the debate on the renewables. Last autumn appeared to mark a watershed in official attitudes when the Government announced that the capacity of wind, hydro, energy-from-waste and other technologies receiving financial support under the non-fossil fuel obligation (NFFO) was being raised by 457MW to a total of 560MW. In the process, the Minister then responsible for renewable energy, Colin Moynihan, commented that the 1,000MW target had been rendered "meaningless" (ENDS Report 202, pp 10-13).

The target has since been reassessed by the Government's Renewable Energy Advisory Group (REAG), which has also looked at the financial and other mechanisms needed to improve on it. But fears have been raised that its report may be shelved by a new set of Ministers. The Department of Trade and Industry, which is now responsible for energy policy, has done nothing to allay these by commenting that it is under no obligation to publish the report. This is plain wrong. Last autumn, the first official progress report on the 1990 White Paper on the environment promised that the results of the review would be published in spring 1992.

Meanwhile, the Energy Committee has concluded that it is "clear that the 1,000MW target can now be met and exceeded." The UK, it says, has something to learn from the ambitious targets set by some foreign governments. The Netherlands, Italy and Greece are aiming to have 400-1,000MW of wind power capacity alone installed by 2000, while the Danish target is 1,200MW by 2005.

The Committee argues that the UK's revised target should be "both challenging and attainable." The Government, it says, "should pay particular attention" to proposals to set it in the 3,000-4,000MW range.

However, the report also points out that several obstacles will need to be removed if a higher target is to be attained. The most important of these concern the NFFO. This is based on a levy on electricity produced from fossil fuels. Of the revenues, 99% are used to support nuclear power, while the residue supports the renewables.

A major criticism of the NFFO is that it extends only to 1998. This means that, in order to secure finance, renewable projects must recover their entire capital costs by then. In turn, this makes the price of renewable energy unreasonably high. If the NFFO expired in 2003, for example, the price of electricity produced from the wind would be 7p/kWh, rather than 11p/kWh with a 1998 deadline.

Extension of the termination date lies in the first instance with the European Commission. The Committee was told by the Commission that it would look favourably on a UK proposal to push the date beyond 1998. The Committee recommends that the extension beyond 1998 should be announced in time to make possible a third renewables order under the NFFO later in 1992. Its report also makes other recommendations which would make the scheme more friendly towards the renewables, including projects supplying both heat and power, which currently receive support under the NFFO only for the electricity they produce.

Another major drawback of the NFFO arrangements is that they apply only in England and Wales. In Scotland, which has more than half of the UK's wind and wave power resources, a small subsidy scheme operated by the two main generating companies is considered by the Committee to be "unlikely to stimulate new investment." Constraints on the development of the renewables in Scotland include the large surplus of generation capacity and the limited capacity of the electricity inter-connector with England and Wales, although this is being increased and a new inter-connector is to be installed across to Northern Ireland.

The Committee was told that the Government intends to introduce a small renewables "obligation" in Scotland of 10-20MW in 1993, rising by similar amounts annually for the next 10 years. An NFFO has also been promised in Northern Ireland once the first official study of its renewable resource is completed. The report welcomes these developments, and recommends programmes to promote renewable energy in small-scale applications serving remote communities.

Another hurdle facing the renewables is potential opposition on amenity grounds to more intrusive developments - notably wind turbines. The Committee has attempted to satisfy the conservation lobby on both counts by recommending, on the one hand, that forthcoming planning guidance should contain a firm presumption against renewable energy development in National Parks and, on the other, that special consideration should be given to developers proposing to use less environmentally sensitive sites.

In doing so the report does not tackle head on the objections which have been raised against wind turbines close to National Parks and in other sensitive landscapes. And, controversially, it suggests that it should not be the role of local authorities to plan for the national or global effects of renewable development. Taking renewable projects out of the local decision making process would certainly be opposed by conservationists.

The report also makes recommendations on individual technologies. It urges the Government to consider funding demonstration offshore wind turbines and photovoltaic energy projects. Wave power should also receive more funding because of the large size of the resource, its small environmental impacts, and the scope for cost reduction.

The prospects for tidal power have receded in recent years, and the Committee does nothing to reverse the trend. It says that large tidal barrages such as those proposed on the Severn and Mersey estuaries may have major environmental impacts, would contribute little to diversity of energy supply, and would need large injections of Government money.

Several refuse incineration schemes received backing under last year's NFFO order, but the Committee also urges caution about this technology. It appears to have accepted evidence from Greenpeace that little energy is recouped from incineration as compared with recycling.

The report concludes that incineration "does not offer a long-term solution to an environmental problem until the most modern and environmentally acceptable technology, with the maximum possible recycling, is universally used. In the absence of sufficiently stringent emissions and dumping regulations," it says, "the price of waste incineration, like that of fossil fuel incineration, is low because no account is taken of external costs." Environmental rules are needed to enable incineration and recycling to be "more realistically compared."

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