Strategies for water and renewables

Blowing it again?

12th July 2010, 14:56

Britain has been luckier than it deserves in its energy resources. Abundant coal reserves gave us a head start in the Industrial Revolution, North Sea oil and gas offered tax windfalls and cheap power in the late twentieth century, and now as the heydays of both are behind us, we find ourselves with access to an unrivaled offshore wind resource.

Plans to install some 30GW of offshore wind turbines by 2020 will not only make the UK the leading offshore wind venue in Europe (and probably the world) but will also provide a huge safety net against our weak position as the tail end charlie of the European gas grid when our own gas runs out.

But why "Luckier than it deserves..."?  Well, the UK has form in blowing natural resources through a mix of political dogma, short-term planning and doing things on the cheap wherever possible.  In the mid 1980's the UK had significant coal reserves, vast new natural gas discoveries and a nascent lead in renewable and nuclear technologies. What happened? The newly privatised utilities stopped all investment in clean coal technology, renewables, nuclear and energy conservation in favour of a mad dash for cheap gas as they and a host of new retail entrants fought for newly opened markets. For good measure utility bosses also dismissed the need for a national energy policy and resisted any idea of EU level strategies. Some voices at the time warned of gas price spikes by 2010 if this energy wild west was permitted, but it happened anyway.

And where are we now? In the face of dwindling hydrocarbon reserves and rising prices, those same utility bosses are calling for Government support for...clean coal technology and renewables investment, trumpeting their energy conservation policies and bemoaning the lack of home grown nuclear expertise. Oh yes, and they now agree that an energy policy, preferably coordinated at EU level wouldn't be a bad idea.

The point of this is that, standing on the cusp of the offshore wind revolution, we can't afford to blow another energy resource again.  The investment and timescales involved are significant but comparable to the power station boom of the 1960's and the North Sea oil bonanza a decade later. But it will require Government commitments on planning regimes, co-ordinated efforts of grid upgrades and a return to long-term strategies by the Utilities.