Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday signalled a shift away from the Government's stance on wind power when he ordered a wide-ranging review of Britain's energy needs.
As campaigners warn that onshore windfarms are ruining the countryside while contributing minimal energy supplies, Mr Blair gave the clearest indication yet that the Government now favoured a nuclear "new build".
That is widely believed to focus on existing sites such as Hinkley Point in Somerset, and would mark a departure from the Energy White Paper in 2003, which came down heavily in favour of renewables. It comes amid concerns of a projected gap in electricity supplies that could lead to power cuts, and criticisms that onshore windfarms cannot possibly make up the shortfall.
It also follows reports in the Western Morning News over the last two years that wind turbines were a "distraction" from the need for reliable sources of energy, and would have little impact on curbing greenhouse gases. Renewable power contributes around 3.6 per cent of the UK’s energy, and is expected to fall short of the "aspirational" target of ten per cent by 2010. The Government is also failing to meet national targets on reducing the carbon emissions that cause global warming.
Mr Blair said: "The future is clean energy. We will meet the Kyoto targets but we have recently seen an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. They are projected to rise further between 2010 and 2020. By around 2020, the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30 per cent of today’s electricity supply. Some of this will be replaced by renewables but not all of it can."
The news of the review, which will be led by the Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks, provoked mixed responses yesterday in the Westcountry, where developers and local campaigners are already locked in disputes over plans for huge windfarms at Den Brook Valley in West Devon and Fullabrook Down, North Devon. Protesters have warned that if these applications go ahead they could lead to a proliferation of turbines across the countryside.
Campbell Dunford, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), which has championed campaigns against windfarms across the region, said that the Government appeared belatedly to have woken up to the energy crisis. He added that it might already be too late to avert power cuts in the South West over the coming years, which could hit the most vulnerable.
"It would be the poor and the elderly who were affected – those people who you would expect a Labour government to be helping," Mr Dunford said. "The idea that renewables could take over from coal and nuclear was always pie in the sky, and the rush for wind power has been a dreadful distraction.
"What we need is energy security and that means from a proper mix of sources. We need firm renewables such as biomass, tidal and solar power. But all of that is never going to take us above a maximum of 20 per cent of our energy needs. The rest must come from other sources and that means a nuclear rebuild.
"The existing sites are already large enough and they are already connected to the grid, so we could put in the new kit without having to expand the nuclear ‘footprint’. Even with a rebuild, the amount of waste produced would be modest, about ten per cent, to add to the waste that is already in existence."
The prospect of a nuclear power renewal is likely to prove the most controversial aspect of the energy review, which is expected to report in the summer next year.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy yesterday warned against a "nuclear tax" of £800 for every person in the UK. He said: "Parliament has just had to approve a £56 billion bill to clean up the waste from the nuclear power we have now. Imagine where we would be if we could spend that kind of money on renewable energy.
"This energy review must set out a clear strategy for investment in clean, green renewable energy. We need a Government prepared to invest properly for our future energy needs, and to invest properly in the environment. That means proper funding for renewables, real incentives to cut demand, and concerted action to cut out waste."
Campaigners for and against nuclear power at Hinkley Point, believe the site would be at the forefront of the policy shift. The site, which is already home to two nuclear power stations, is the only one in the country that has planning permission to build another nuclear plant. Although that planning permission has lapsed, industry insiders say that Hinkley Point would be a front-runner as it has already been through a successful planning inquiry to build Hinkley Point C, it has the spare land, infrastructure and professional workforce in place.
Jim Duffy, co-ordinator of the Stop Hinkley group, which campaigns against nuclear power, said yesterday: "The Government seem to be making a mistake here.
They are saying that climate change is the very reason for heading towards nuclear power."
Any shift in emphasis towards nuclear power could also pose difficulties for the renewable energy industry, amid worries that investment would be deterred.
Tim German, director of the Cornwall Sustainable Energy Partnership, said: "It was good to hear that the Department of Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson, at the recent environment audit committee last week, admit that nuclear energy is not necessarily a renewable energy, and sceptics have set a 20-plus year delay by successive governments.
"This could possibly be a deliberate attempt by the Government of waiting until our ‘backs are against the wall’ to make an easier decision possible.
"The principal concern is that government financial support for energy efficiency and renewable energy will be swallowed up by the resurgence of the hugely expensive nuclear industry, recently bailed out by billions of pounds by the Government."
The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) also highlighted the significance of Mr Wicks’ review to the renewables industry.
Chief executive Marcus Rand said: "This review must be as much about delivering the potential of renewables as it is about deciding on new nuclear. The UK has made a strong start in the past few years in exploiting our massive wind resource, but this is only the start. Other renewables, such as wave and tidal, can also make significant contributions over the coming decade if the right policies are put in place to rapidly commercialise and deploy them."
Mr Blair’s announcement yesterday was disrupted by campaigners from Greenpeace who signalled their determination to oppose any nuclear rebuild. Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace UK, said during the demonstration:
"Nuclear power is not the answer to climate change. It is costly, dangerous and a terrorist target. Just three years ago Blair conducted the biggest energy review in 60 years, which concluded renewable energy and energy efficiency, not nuclear, is the way forward.
"Today’s new review is simply a smokescreen for pushing his new-found enthusiasm for nuclear power."
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