Why is the UK so far behind in renewables?

Renault's Zoom concept electric car. Image source: Auto Express.

Most major countries in Europe have decided to focus on one or two technologies to reduce carbon emissions. By making concentrated investments in one or two promising areas these countries are likely to achieve substantial cost reductions and rapid increases in deployment. By contrast, the UK is dabbling ineffectually in several areas and achieving little. Despite having large resources of renewable energy sources, the UK’s effort is diffuse, trivial in scope and clearly insufficient. We have almost the lowest percentage of our energy coming from low-carbon sources in the EU.


Here is a brief list of just some of the main programmes in other European countries. In each case, the nation is likely to acquire a world-leading position in a technology which can be expanded to save tens of percent of national emissions, provide large numbers of jobs and stimulate a successful export industry. (More details of each of these can be found in Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, just published by Profile Books.)

Portugal – electric cars and wind power Portugal has just announced a programme to install charging points for electric vehicles across the country. In a deal with Renault-Nissan, it will encourage the transition to battery vehicles by reducing taxation on electric cars and giving income tax breaks to the purchasers of Renault’s new cars. This is a world first.

Portugal’s subsidies for wave technology meant that the world’s first commercial wave farm was installed on the Atlantic Coast. It also has a large and growing percentage of its electricity from wind.

Germany – a major push into eco-renovation of all older buildings Many people know about Germany’s feed-in tariffs for small-scale renewables. This has substantial disadvantages, but has kick-started the world’s solar PV industries. It has also made parts of Germany self-sufficient in electricity through the rapid growth of wind turbines.

Fewer people understand the vital importance of Germany’s active support of eco-renovation. Three hundred thousand housing units (flats and houses) will benefit this year from improved insulation and climate control. Soft loans and other subsidies are proving hugely popular and help cut the emissions from older buildings by up to 85%. This is a systematic, coordinated programme that will eventually upgrade all Germany’s older residential buildings to better insulation standards than are currently being demanded for new housing in the UK.

Spain – massive investment in wind and in new solar power technologies On some nights in February 2008, 40% of Spain’s electricity came from wind. Active support for wind farms has meant that Spain was the fastest growing market for turbines in the world.

It is not just wind. Spain is also the world leader in using the power of the sun to create electricity. Installations such as the Seville solar tower and the Andasol concentrated solar power farm are outstanding innovations that enable Spanish companies to sell their technology to the US and to North Africa.

Denmark – low-carbon district heating and enzymes for making fuels from agricultural wastes Denmark has built a world-leading industry through its sustained and intelligent support for wind turbine manufacturing. Two of the world’s biggest manufacturers, Vestas and Siemens, build their products there and India’s fast-growing Suzlon does its European marketing from there.

Less well known is that Denmark is also ahead in the use of large-scale shared heating plants powered by wood and other biomass. Increasingly these plants also produce carbon-neutral electricity. Denmark’s enzyme industry, which controls over half of world production, is also in a leadership position in the production of chemicals for making usable liquid fuels by cracking the complex molecules in wood and agricultural wastes.

Sweden – a real commitment to a low-carbon economy and a vital role in carbon capture Sweden’s resources of wood and its access to the electricity from Norway’s huge hydro-electric power plants make it likely that it will be the first country to become a genuinely low-carbon economy. And state-owned energy company, Vattenfall, is leading the world in research into carbon capture at large coal-fired power stations. Its new installation at Schwarze Pumpe in eastern Germany is the only large-scale example of the implementation of this critical technology anywhere in the world.

Where is the UK in all of this? Despite having 40% of Europe’s wind power, its record in installing turbines is way behind many other countries with much lower average wind speeds. Many wind farms with planning permission cannot obtain connections from the National Grid. Small knots of inventors and entrepreneurs are scrabbling for the tiny amounts of available capital to develop the UK’s vast tidal power reserves. But, once again, it may prove impossible to connect tidal power farms to the Grid.

In Smith Electric Vehicles and Modec we have two of the world leaders in electric vans and small lorries but the government has given almost no support. It doesn’t even use its vast purchasing power effectively. Efforts to help electricity generators develop biomass sources for power have been halting and inconsistent. As a result, most biomass burned in power stations today is being imported from Asia. Plans for a single trial carbon capture plant are proceeding painfully slowly and the finance does not even appear as a line in government budget projections. Research into low-carbon liquid fuels is not supported with consistency or substantial amounts of cash.

To an extent simply not understood in this country, the world now has the technological capability to rid itself of the dependency on fossil fuels. UK government policy has been woefully slow and halting towards those industries which could give Britain a world lead in ten or twenty years’ time. As the national unemployment figures begin their long rise upward to three million and perhaps beyond, now is the time to start an active programme of support for the technologies in which the UK has the potential for the creation of real, important and durable jobs.