How wind, waves and sunshine will power a green 'industrial revolution'

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

07 March 2001

Britain is behind in the "green industrial revolution" in which countries across the world have developed and deployed renewable technologies over the past 10 years, the Prime Minister said in his keynote speech on the environment yesterday.

The United States, Japan, Germany and even industrial second-leaguers such as Denmark and Spain are well ahead of Britain in using wind, solar and wave power.

Germany builds as many wind farms in a week as Britain does in a year. When Britain builds wind farms, it imports the turbines from Denmark. One of the biggest producers of solar roof panels is a subsidiary of BP but its factory is in California.

There seems to have been some sort of central failure of the imagination in the British political and industrial establishments about renewable technology. Modern windmills, solar panels and wave power devices have been regarded as cranky and wacky - devices in the great Heath Robinson tradition probably held together with bits of string and paper clips and certainly not suitable for really serious government investment.

Tony Blair's speech yesterday was instantly regarded as significant because, for the first time, he put the full backing of the Government behind renewable energy, giving it his personal endorsement. It was a cultural shift.

This will be felt right through Whitehall and the government machine, not least in the Treasury - which has had to be squeezed very hard in the past to disgorge money in support of renewable energy - and it will be felt right through the business community. At a stroke, renewable energy has gone from being a minority concern to a mainstream one.

The context of Mr Blair's endorsement is his concern, proclaimed at length yesterday, about the consequences of climate change; we must move away from fossil fuels whose burning produces the rising levels of carbon dioxide responsible for climate change.

But in the green industrial revolution - and this was his phrase - he sees not just a challenge but a great opportunity. It is the next phase of the "knowledge economy" and, as with the internet, Britain cannot afford to be left behind.

The global market for environmental goods and services, he said, is projected to rise to £440bn by 2010; wind power is already a £1.5bn industry; by 2010 the global market for solar power could be worth £150bn.

But in Britain, we are just taking our first faltering steps. With our 1,000-mile coastline we have the biggest potential supply of offshore wind power in Europe, capable in theory of producing all the electricity we need three times over, yet so far we have but two offshore wind turbines, at Blyth in Northumberland, opened late last year.

These were made in Denmark yet one estimate suggests if we set up our own wind turbine manufacturing and supply base we could provide 19,000 jobs; another estimate says 36,000 jobs.

Things are improving, however. In his last speech on the environment, in October, Mr Blair announced £64m aid for offshore wind power and this has given the infant industry a definite shot in the arm.

The Crown Estate, owner of Britain's seabed, has now received more than £1bn of applications from 15 major companies to start offshore wind farms. Some will be giants of 20 to 30 turbines and if the applications are successful - the announcement is in May - the amount of energy Britain produces from wind power will be due to double overnight. Solar power has lagged even further and Mr Blair's announcement yesterday that some of the £100m he promised for renewables was earmarked for solar energy was the first big government investment, which is why it was so warmly welcomed.

But once again, the technology is there: the photovoltaic cell, the roof panel which can turn sunshine into electric current for the household, is already in manufacture and BP Solar, subsidiary of the oil giant, is one of the main players in the industry, although the Japan-ese are leading.

It seems clear Mr Blair wants Britain to have a programme of putting solar panels on to 70,000 roofs by the end of the decade.

Wave power remains the poor relation but even so the technology is proven and Britain's first experimental wave power station opened on the island of Islay late last year.

Mr Blair made clear that the £100m he was announcing was only a start, and many observers took the view that he was serious, and that his wish for "Britain to be a leading player in this coming green revolution" was a realisable one - as long as he follows through.

"We have the skills, we have the technology, and we have the will," said Tom Burke, a former green adviser to the Government now advising industry. "Now we have to create the right alignment between Government and business to deliver it."

A Friends of the Earth spokesman, Mark Johnston, said: "Mr Blair's call is long overdue, but that doesn't matter. There is no choice but for there to be a green industrial revolution. Britain has a lot of catching up to do but the signs are there to give us a lot of cause for optimism."

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