Winding up for the challenge

Is the renewable technology sector in danger of being shot down before it has a chance to show what it can do?

Renewable energy is a growth area for advanced technology. Utilities, governments and international bodies such as the EU are imploring the engineering and scientific communities to find new ways to wean us off our reliance on fossil fuels and help them meet ambitious environmental targets.

Research grants and other backing are available. Even the private investment sector appears to be more favourably disposed to an area of technology whose time seems to have come – admittedly after some false starts over the past few decades.

The UK government’s record so far is mixed, with words of support and ambitious targets undermined by an apparent unwillingness to grasp the nettle firmly (a familiar pattern, its detractors might say).

It has, for example, seemed to dither over which strand of technology to throw its weight behind, with solar energy apparently out of favour to be replaced by wind power as flavour of the month.The fledgling renewables industry is, however, getting on with it as best it can, demonstrating a scope for technical innovation in the face of a challenge that characterises much of what is best in UK engineering technology.

The wind energy sector in particular is beginning to step up the pressure on the government to sort out the confused approvals process for both onshore and offshore wind farms.

The industry welcomed new planning guidelines issued last month that are generally supportive of wind energy developments and calls on local authorities not to place constraints on renewable technologies.

In this case, however, the government may be the least of the nascent industry’s problems. Wind farms are already bracing themselves for a hurricane from that deadliest of perils: the Celebrity Nimby.

The puffing began when luminaries such as TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh and botanist David Bellamy weighed in with a blast against despoiling the countryside. And it is with a certain weary inevitability that we learn that Prince Charles, scourge of GM food and amateur nanotechnologist, is already on the case.

And we just know it won’t stop with wind farms. Wave and solar installations will inevitably come under the same scrutiny, even though they produce not an iota of anything harmful and consume nothing that nature will not instantly replace.

These people will oppose them because they don’t like the look of them. (Presumably HRH, with his love of fine architecture, will be lobbying for the nation’s power stations, complete with their quaint emissions, to be listed as national treasures.)

The irony of course is that these same people would recoil at the prospect of a nuclear power station within 100 miles of them, but yelp with indignation if their lights went out. This magazine has long argued that nuclear and renewable technologies will both have a role in supplying the UK’s long-term energy needs.

The nuclear industry has done its image no favours over the years. The renewable technology sector is in danger of being shot down even before it has a chance to show what it can do.