Prime Minister David Cameron said the U.K. must rethink energy policy once targets for renewable power are met, a sign Conservatives in the coalition government are reluctant to deepen the nation’s green-growth ambitions.
“We’ve got a big pipeline of offshore and onshore wind products coming through,” Cameron said in response to a question in Parliament in London. “All parties are going to have to have a debate on what happens once those commitments are met.”
The comments underscored divisions between Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties in the administration, which are at odds over how the pace of expansion for land-based wind turbines. Britain has tripled the portion of energy coming from renewables since 2009 and may surpass 15 percent supply before 2020 when the government has committed to that level.
Cameron was replying to calls from David Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, to clarify the government’s view on renewables after a rift between two ministers about wind. Those comments unsettled industry and environmental groups, which said the dispute puts at risk investment needed to upgrade Britain’s aging power plants.
“Ministers’ public disagreements on renewable energy policy are damaging to investor confidence,” said Gaynor Hartnell, chief executive officer of the Renewable Energy Association. “The coalition needs to put the national interest ahead of party-politics given the gravity of our energy challenge.”
The dispute burst into the open earlier today when John Hayes, a junior energy minister, said he ordered an analysis of onshore wind and that he wouldn’t support new turbines. The Conservative lawmaker told the Daily Mail that the machines had been “peppered” across the countryside and that “enough is enough.”
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister in charge of the department, said the technology is “one of the cheapest renewables” and has “an important role to play.”
Hayes was appointed in September and has said he wants to give greater weight to the views of local communities on where wind farms are sited. Almost a third of Conservative members of Parliament wrote to the prime minister in January saying turbines are “inefficient and intermittent.”
Cameron said there has been no change in the government’s support for renewables, though his remarks signal that Conservatives may seek to rein in support for the industry once the current targets are met.
Britain is aiming for 15 percent of its energy to come from clean sources such as solar and wind by 2020. The country in 2009 got about 3 percent of its energy from renewables, and this already has risen to as much as 9.4 percent. Scotland yesterday said it’s aiming for half its electricity to come from clean power after reaching 35 percent last year, beating its 31 percent interim goal.
“It is under this government that we’ve seen more invest in green energy in three years than under the previous government,” Cameron said. “This is indeed a very green government, and it’s sticking to its promises.”
The prime minister didn’t discuss Hayes’ remark. The comments come at a sensitive time for the industry, which is awaiting legislation from government on how to reshape the industry and encourage power plant construction. The regulator Ofgem estimates the U.K. needs to attract 110 billion pounds ($177 billion) of investment to replace aging power plants and upgrade electric grids in the next two decades.
RenewableUK, an industry group, said it was shocked by Hayes’ remarks in the newspaper, which didn’t chime with comments he made in a speech yesterday in Glasgow to 400 delegates at a wave, wind and tidal conference. There, he repeated the government line that it’s supporting renewables.
“We are on the eve of the publication of the Energy Bill, a crucial time for energy policy, with huge investment decisions to be made that will lead to tens of thousands of jobs over the next decade,” Deputy Chief Executive Maf Smith said in a statement.
Environmental groups expressed anger and suggested Cameron is walking away from the commitment he made upon taking office to lead the “greenest ever” government.
“John Hayes’ petulant outburst adds to the coalition’s growing energy shambles and to a deepening divide within government between those who care about green growth and those who just want more oil and gas,” said Leila Deen, an energy campaigner for Greenpeace. “Here is a new minister veering off brief and publicly contradicting his bosses.”
About two weeks after Hayes was appointed to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the department started a consultation designed to ensure communities could derive benefits from wind farms built nearby, including through grants to build playgrounds.
“We can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities,” Hayes said, according to the Daily Mail, which said only a minority of turbines in the planning process would get through. He has commissioned research to assess the impact of turbines on the landscape.
Ministers from the energy department met this morning and discussed Hayes’ remarks. Davey is in charge of energy strategy and renewables, while Hayes looks over deployment of technologies and Greg Barker, another junior minister in the department, is in charge of planning issues.
Hayes said Oct. 17 that the British government should give more weight to aesthetics in the approval process. Britain is seeking to more than double its onshore wind capacity by 2020.
Davey fought to maintain cuts to onshore wind subsidies at the planned 10 percent level in July after pressure from the Treasury headed by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to reduce them more. Osborne, a Conservative, has called for government to move more slowly on low-carbon initiatives, saying they’re hurting industry.
“With the Energy Bill just weeks away, David Cameron needs to get a grip on his government,” said Nick Molho, head of energy policy at the pressure group WWF in the U.K. “The prime minister appears to be asleep at the wheel on energy policy, with George Osborne a back seat driver colour-blind to green growth.”
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