Against the backdrop of the worldwide economic downturn, it is ironic that the area often said to have the least business certainty, the renewables sector, is one of the few success stories. Globally this industry is bucking the trends, creating millions of new green jobs, increasing countries’ energy independence and reducing climate-changing emissions. So it is scandalous that the CBI should come out attacking the prime minister and the climate change secretary Ed Miliband’s commitment to boosting this industry in Britain just days before the launch of a fresh government initiative.
Not so much the “voice of British business” as the voice of French and German energy monopolies, for too long E.ON, RWE and EDF have dictated the terms of the British energy debate. Today’s CBI report advocating that Britain scale back its renewable ambitions yet further is just the latest tactic by these utilities to shaft British business efforts in clean tech out of fear of new competition and the threat posed to their “business as usual” approach. EDF and E.ON admit they oppose ambition on renewables in case they undermine the economic case for the nuclear power stations they want to build. These arguments are now parroted verbatim by the CBI.
It is no coincidence that Germany and Spain, which have shut the door on new nuclear power, have invested most in renewables and seen their green industries rocket. Spain now generates as much as 40 per cent of its electricity from wind power and studies show the investment in renewables has lowered wholesale electricity prices in Spain by more than the cost of the incentive they used to kickstart the industry. Germany has created almost a quarter of a million new green jobs in renewables as a whole and £8.5bn a year for its economy from wind industry sales alone.
While other countries got ahead of the UK in green tech, in a textbook case of the power of special interests operating in Whitehall, energy officials in Britain lobbied together with two German energy giants and the French state-owned atomic industry to systematically undermine and sabotage UK efforts on renewables.
As the Guardian exposed almost two years ago, the former energy minister John Hutton initially attempted, in effect, to abolish Labour’s commitment to increasing renewable generation altogether. Then one leak after another showed energy department officials seeking to wreck efforts on renewables by creating loopholes in the relevant European directive. As the BBC reported, over an 18-month period Hutton negotiated a reduction in the UK target, tried to get carbon-capture coal categorised as renewable energy, and argued that funding for renewable energy projects abroad should be able to count towards the UK targets. Meanwhile, anti-wind nimby groups with links to giant PR firms were set up to whip up anti-renewable hysteria with little transparency and much suspicion about who was really behind them, especially given that national government polling shows that 80 per cent of people support wind power. Plans were even announced to knock down a wind farm to make way for a nuclear plant.
Meanwhile, energy giants were busy buying up crucial grid connections for nuclear plants as the government failed to tackle massive backlogs in getting wind farms connected. No wonder earlier this year the wind manufacturer Vestas announced it would shut up shop in Britain, even as it expanded in other countries, such as the US and China, creating thousands of new jobs in those places and redundancies here. The UK renewables environment was so dire that it was driving green industry away.
As the University of Exeter’s professor of energy policy, Catherine Mitchell, put it, the UK’s lack of innovation “has been fought for, and won, by the large companies and lobbies, so they can carry on doing as they wish – despite the urgency of climate change”. Today’s CBI report is more of the same. It is this that Miliband must challenge in his new strategy to be launched on Wednesday.
The climate change secretary has successfully begun a radical transformation of his department and its attitude to renewable energy. His next test is whether he has the courage to stand up to the vested interests of foreign utilities and their CBI mouthpiece to stick to the promise he and the prime minister made to deliver on the UK’s renewable energy and climate commitments in full.