BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 20.01.02

Film: TERRY DIGNAN Reports on the Government's review of energy policy. Are they prepared to take the difficult decisions necessary to tackle the problem of global warming?

TERRY DIGNAN: The modern city never sleeps. It consumes energy relentlessly. But at what cost? The burning of fossil fuels - gas, coal and oil - creates greenhouse gases. These are changing our planet's climate. For the worse. We're using energy as if there's no tomorrow. Which means we're in danger of passing on to future generations an environment irretrievably damaged by global warming. We could switch on the lights using more nuclear power, but many Labour MPs would object. Or we could use so-called renewable sources of energy, wind in particular. But then the government would have to be brave and ask us to pay higher electricity prices. DIETER HELM: This government has a massive majority, it is politically extremely powerful and it is a once in a generation opportunity to tell people the truth, confront them with the facts of the pollution that are caused to provide their energy resources and tell them that it's going to get more expensive. DIGNAN: At the Energy Savings Trust, Energy Minister, Brian Wilson hears ideas for reducing fossil fuel use. We face becoming dependent on imported gas, while emissions of pollutants like CO 2, Carbon Dioxide, will go on rising. The Prime Minister's Performance and Innovation Unit has been asked to come up with a solution. BRIAN WILSON MP: It's a very challenging circle to square. If we go on, if we did nothing, if we didn't have this review, if we didn't take any interventionist actions out of this review then we would have this very high dependence on gas, our nuclear industry would fade away and that has an impact on emissions and also we wouldn't make progress on renewables which in the past we haven't done well on at all. JOAN RUDDOCK MP: It's a matter of investment, it's a matter of political will and I think also dispensing with some of the vested interests. The calculations are quite clear we could, even by 2025 produce half our energy from renewable sources. I think if the government puts its mind to it, that could be achieved. DIGNAN: On the Suffolk coast there's home-grown energy without global warming. But Sizewell A nuclear power station belongs to a dying industry. The nuclear reactor underneath me here will shut down for the last time in 2006. Most of our nuclear power stations will close over the next twenty-five years and there are no plans to replace them. Yet ministers are now refusing to rule out a long term future for nuclear power. Unlike coal and gas, nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases like CO 2. ROBIN JEFFREY: Nuclear power today provides round about twenty five per cent, a quarter of the UK's electricity. It's very important, that's a lot of electricity, that's one out of ever four light bulbs. So it's a very important aspect of making electricity in the UK and it's got some very special advantages because it's electricity without putting green house gasses, global warming gasses up in to the environment. DIGNAN: But there is a big drawback to nuclear power. It produces radioactive waste. If the protective clothing of these men becomes contaminated, the material can be disposed of or treated safely. But waste from nuclear fuel is much more of a problem and the cost of storing it prohibitive. Which is why the energy review is expected to play down nuclear's contribution to our future needs. RUDDOCK: We've got ten thousand tons of highly toxic nuclear waste at the moment that nobody can actually dispose of. We are planning to get up to five hundred thousand tons from the existing nuclear capacity and it's going to cost us something like eighty five billion pounds to deal with this problem. DIGNAN: An era is drawing to a close. But ministers fear becoming too reliant on fossil burning fuels. So they might extend the lives of some nuclear power stations. Despite pressure from environmentalists, they won't rule out a long term future for nuclear power. WILSON: I don't think you can do that. I think it has to be kept, the option has to be kept open certainly for the foreseeable future. I don't think there's any great rush to build new nuclear power stations but on the other hand, I think it would be crazy at this juncture to say nuclear is a...has got no contribution to make. Because the challenge then of meeting our environmental obligations and at the same time losing the nuclear component would become that that much greater. DIGNAN: Many believe this is where we should get our energy from - the wind. So-called renewable energy like wind doesn't give off greenhouse gases or create dangerous waste. But this Norfolk wind farm only produces enough energy to heat fourteen hundred homes. If we're to see a massive expansion in renewable energy, it's argued both the public and the Government will have to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea. The wind is free and the maintenance requires just the occasional visit from an engineer. Yet less than three per cent of our energy comes from renewables. Ministers hope it will be ten per cent by 2010. The Performance and Innovation Unit is likely to suggest doubling that figure by 2020. Yet wind farms have taken off slowly. They suffer from rules which penalise energy companies financially for any interruption in supply. NICK GOODALL: The new electricity trading arrangements under which all electricity is traded are disadvantageous to renewables and it's a perversity that on one hand we have a laudable government objective of introducing an initial ten per cent of electricity from renewables and yet the single most likely technology, wind, which by it's nature is, is intermittent because sometimes it's windy and sometimes it's not, is actively punished by the rules of the new trading system. DIGNAN: The Government's answer is the Renewables Obligation which will require the utility companies to buy a tenth of their electricity from environmentally-friendly sources. But ministers may be loathe to meet a figure of twenty per cent for fear of driving up prices to the consumer. WILSON: You have to keep a balance here between what carries public acceptability and what government wants to do and our obligations environmentally and towards our future energy, energy policy. And if you've got these things too far out of sync then it's going to create a backlash. It's going to create a backlash from domestic consumers who don't want to see their bills going up disproportionately, it's going to create a backlash from industry who do not want to be made uncompetitive through the price of electricity. HELM: In the end, it is a choice, it doesn't add up to simply say: you could have low prices and you could have a significant improvement in our global warming position. You can't have both. DIGNAN: And nor may it be possible to substantially increase wind energy without changing planning laws. Some regard wind farms as eyesores. So there are to be regional targets for renewables. Yet tackling global warming may still be undermined by planning objections. WILSON: We can achieve the 2010 target but no one should make any mistake that it's challenging and the whole planning issue is a major factor in whether or not we, we achieve it. DIGNAN: Take to the sea - that's one answer to the problem. This meteorologist and engineer from Enron Wind in Germany, hope there's enough wind off the Essex coast to generate plenty of energy. Yet ministers even sound a note of caution about this idea and about renewable energy generally. To the disappointment of those who extol the sea's obvious advantages. GOODALL: There's an awful lot of water out there and if the sea bed's good enough that's perfectly good real estate for building wind farms. If you want to build a several hundred mega watt wind farm, as we're beginning to see interest in now, there aren't many places on-shore you can do that. WILSON: Off shore wind can be a huge contributor, but already there are some storm signs brewing there of people with interests who will object to that. You can't really mention one technology where there are not either objections to current projects or the prospect of objections when you actually come forward with them. DIGNAN: And it may be a struggle linking offshore - and onshore - wind generators to the national grid. Indeed, the way electricity is supplied is a problem for most renewables. UNNAMED MAN: The grid connection is at the back of Clacton on Sea, so we've got an overland route to the shoreline and then undersea cables out to a transformer in this area. DIGNAN: Renewable energy generators will be scattered far and wide and they'll be on a much smaller scale than conventional power plants. HELM: We have an electricity system which is designed primarily with big coal power stations in the North and nuclear power stations on the periphery, away from populations, in mind. Those big power stations output is then transported through our electricity system to the customers predominantly in the South. Now that system for big power stations is uniquely inappropriate for a world of small-scale local embedded wind farms or bio-mass farms or whatever. DIGNAN: The plan here is for thirty generators. But first the visitors have to start monitoring the wind's strength and direction using a weather mast. To encourage such investment it's said the Performance and Innovation Unit's draft report proposes a carbon tax on fossil fuels, making renewables comparatively cheaper and providing revenue to adapt the grid. Ministers, though, fear voters' reaction. WILSON: I'm always very wary of these kind of cure all's that if only we did it this way everything would be alright. Well we're doing it in one particular way which has to carry public acceptance, has to carry public understanding. HELM: Much as governments like to please everybody and come up with solutions which everyone welcomes, the fact is that if you want to reduce CO2 emissions in this country by a substantial amount, it's going to cost an incredible amount of money, it is not a free lunch. DIGNAN: Just four or five of the type of wind farm planned here could provide as much energy as Sizewell A nuclear power station back up the coast. But doubts remain as to whether there's the political will to switch to renewable energy. If there isn't many fear it's hard to see how we can avoid doing further damage to our environment. RUDDOCK: We can meet our energy needs by renewables and it seems to me that if the report comes out strongly enough, and I hope it will, then the Government will have a message and there will be many many Members of Parliament and indeed pressure groups that will be saying to the government tackle this now, demonstrate the political will and get on with the job. WILSON: I think we should go full steam ahead on renewables. We should and we are, we are putting weight and commitment behind that on a scale which is in complete contrast to everything that has gone before in, in this country. But the idea there's a simple answer that you leap from or our present mix to one which is very heavily dependent on renewables is, is not realistic. DIGNAN: Our demand for energy is insatiable. But the harm this causes our environment has left the Government in a dilemma. There's no shortage of ideas for tackling the problem. But they're expensive and politically risky. Which is why ministers appear so fearful of endorsing them.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.