DEAR EDITOR, Hypocrisy is not something that US president George W Bush can be accused of, at least not as far as combating climate change is concerned. He has made no empty gestures, no meaningless promises – he has simply said that if an action is not good for the US economy he won’t take it.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of UK politicians and civil servants to whom empty gestures appear to be the norm.
Consider renewable energy. Imagine a technology that is superior to most other renewable technologies in almost every way: low emissions, best energy pay back rate, environmentally benign, unobtrusive installations, recyclable construction materials, reliable and predictable output – the list of benefits is endless.
The drawback (there is always one) is that the resource is finite.
Should we not, therefore, be doing everything possible to encourage research and development to ensure the maximum utilisation of this resource? Well yes – or rather no if you are a politician or civil servant.
Needless to say this marvellous resource is small hydro and some of the UK government support given to research and development projects in the last two and a half years is listed in the table to the right.
The total support given is just over US$736,774. If export related projects are removed the total is a paltry US$619,816 – or about US$247,957 per year. Rather less, probably, than the civil servants and ETSU (energy and environment consultants) staff are being paid to administer the projects.
Perhaps there is a shortage of funds? Well no, not if former Energy Minister Peter Hain’s announcement of 1 May 2001 is to be believed – that the government is to give an extra US$4.3M (on top of the US$2M given in 2000) to invest in solar power this year, plus a further US$14.2M over the next three years, plus a share of the US$1.4B renewable fund. Will this money be used to do further research into what is after all a rather wonderful technology – turning sunlight into electricity? Well no, it will be used to cover several thousand UK roofs in shiny Photovoltaic (PV) panels. So no great steps forward here.
Then will it stimulate the British PV panel manufacturing sector resulting in dozens of jobs for UK workers? Not very likely since major UK panel manufacturing facilities have been moved to the Far East. There are likely to be more jobs in Seoul than Sheffield as a result of this initiative.
So the answer must be that it will end our dependence on fossil fuel fired power stations? Sorry, no again. The maximum demand for electricity occurs, depending on the weather, in winter between 5pm and 7pm. Sunset in London in December is at 4pm.
So we still need all the fossil fuel stations to keep civilisation afloat. Small hydro, however, is there in December at 5pm pushing out clean green energy, predictable from one day to the next.
There are thousands of potential sites for small hydro in the UK, almost every village has one. Towns have two or three and between them they could make millions of kWh of green electricity every year, giving work to UK factories in the process.
Why then is PV more popular with our civil servants and politicians than hydro? They are intelligent people. They know the facts.
The answer is lobbying and perception.
The PV panel manufacturing companies have spent millions of pounds pushing the benefits of PV at politicians and lobbying groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Now these bodies have pressurised the politicians who in turn have influenced the civil servants. Our renewable energy policies are being decided not by logic but by pressure groups.
Perhaps the new Energy Minister, Brian Wilson, will be more his own man than Peter Hain and will apply some sense to the way the Department of Trade and Industry doles out its research and development money.
Perhaps like George W Bush, he will forsake hypocrisy and the empty gesture, risk the wrath of the mob, and do what is best for the environment and the UK economy.