Power from the people

3 min read

Our climate is changing. Melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, flooded cities. These are all part of our future and our children's future. And not because of some immutable force of nature. The body of scientific evidence is overwhelming: the changes in our planet's environment are a direct result of human action.

But all this talk of catastrophic climate change... it must be a matter for the G8, the EU perhaps the UN? Surely presidents and prime ministers are the only people with the power to arrest climate change? Up to a point this is true and there is a developing international agenda in which the UK is taking the lead. But as individuals we are far from powerless. Indeed as individuals we are responsible for 27 per cent of the UK's total emissions of carbon dioxide. At the moment we are all part of the problem, in terms of how we use and abuse energy in our homes and modes of transport.

But we can become part of the solution. We can move from being passive consumers to taking a more active approach to environmental issues. This is starting to happen. More of us are aware of the need to conserve our resources and so are recycling more than ever before. Awareness of climate change is rising, but we have not yet made a similar step from awareness of an issue to taking action.

This is where microgeneration, power from the people, can play an increasing role. Microgeneration technologies are exciting products. In some ways they are the ultimate hi-tech product - roof-tiles that generate electricity from sunlight. In other ways they are a real throwback - the wind has been used as a source of power for centuries. These technologies connect us with energy once more. It wasn't so long ago that we were shovelling coal into fires to generate heat - now all we have to do is flick the thermostat.

Microgeneration technologies with informative display technology bring back this connection with the source of our energy. And allow us to see just how much electricity or heat we are using, and the difference that small actions, such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs, can make.

Microgeneration also contributes to our other energy policy goals. It can help us to reduce reliance on energy imports by providing households and communities with power sources that exploit our own abundant natural resources. It can help us to tackle fuel poverty. If we can fund the upfront costs of installation then microgeneration technologies can provide heat at a minimal cost.

Community engagement is a key element in promoting microgeneration. The installation of these technologies in a community setting, maybe through a social enterprise, can make a significant impact in terms of engaging the public in tackling climate change. They can see these technologies in action and learn about the benefits they have in terms of saving money and saving the environment.

Perhaps the best setting for microgeneration is in our schools. Schools are often the hub of a community. But more importantly they are where the behaviour of future generations is shaped. Solar panels, wind turbines, wood-fuelled boilers. These technologies and more can bring the message home to our children.

They can act as vivid teaching aids in science lessons, civics lessons, geography lessons. And, as is often the way, those children will then begin to educate their parents. In this way we can start to shift behaviour.

In government we are committed to a future in which microgeneration plays a significant role in meeting our energy needs. A future where solar panels, heat pumps and even micro wind turbines are seen on every street.

To help achieve our vision we provide grants through our Low Carbon Buildings Programme. Following the chancellor's announcement in the budget of an additional 50m, this programme now has 80m to allocate over a three-year period. This is a significant demonstration of government commitment to these technologies - it is now up to the industry to deliver.

I have also recently published the government's strategy for the promotion of microgeneration. This strategy contains a number of actions aimed at creating the sustainable market these technologies need in order to become part of our landscape.

Edited extracts of a speech given by Malcolm Wicks, minister of state for energy, at last month's Sustainability: Microgeneration conference