By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The renewable energy lobby has generally welcomed the government's energy review, which aims to boost the portion of UK power generated from sources such as wind, tides and biomass to 20% by 2020.
The review's main focus is on electricity generation
And in a process dominated by headlines about a new nationwide network of nuclear reactors, there is much to enthuse the champions of the small and the green.
Many important details remain to be resolved; but the overt commitment to renewables and the many pages pledging improvements in energy efficiency hold out the prospect of genuine moves towards sustainability.
"The direction of travel is a welcome one," said Dave Sowden of the Micropower Council.
"The government has seen the light on renewables," added Philip Wolfe of the Renewable Energy Association (REA).
"The energy review supports what we and many others have been consistently saying - that renewables, energy efficiency and decentralised systems are the strongest prospects for secure and sustainable energy supplies."
Planning laws have been a particular bugbear of the microgeneration industry; and it is easy to see why.
Two years ago I visited a house in west London which had recently been equipped with rooftop solar panels. The owner wanted to add a small wind turbine, but his local authority turned the application down because, it said, the turbine would have been too noisy.
The house is directly under the flight path into Heathrow Airport.
The energy review promises to sweep such barriers away. The details are not honed down but the intention is "...to ensure that, as far as possible, homeowners will be able to install solar panels, photovoltaic cells, domestic wind turbines, etc. without having to apply for planning permission".
"We agree with that," said Mr Sowden.
"It wouldn't be appropriate for people to install a 15 ft (5m) wind turbine on their roof without planning permission, but within sensible limits you should be able to install micropower equipment without it," he told the BBC News website.
"You don't need permission for a satellite dish, and small wind turbines are no more intrusive."
Boost for microgeneration
Other measures designed to encourage microgeneration include:
- changing codes for new buildings
- looking to include microgeneration in the financial incentives of the Energy Efficiency Commitment
- expecting planning authorities to require on-site renewable generation in new developments
- making it easier for householders and communities to sell electricity
But planning is the key; not only for micro-renewables, but also for their much larger cousins such as industrial-scale wind turbines.
In an echo of its statements on nuclear reactors, the review concludes that public planning enquiries for wind farms are taking too long, and do not always give sufficient priority to the nation's interest.
Accordingly the government has published a Statement of Need, stating that "...the benefits to society and the wider economy as a whole are significant, and this must be reflected in the weight given to these considerations by decision-makers...".
While this may ease the planning process for wind farms and other forms of renewable energy, changes to the Renewables Obligation (RO) may be more important as a way of stimulating the uptake of new technologies.
This obliges power companies to source a substantial portion of their electricity from renewables; the energy review pledges to increase that fraction up to 20%, up from 15%, and to investigate "banding".
The review pledges to speed planning procedures for wind farms
"Exactly how the government will do it remains to be seen," said Rob Gross, head of policy and technology at the UK Energy Research Centre, "but essentially you would have a share of the obligation reserved for certain kinds of technology.
"Or you could increase the reward given for investing in certain kinds of technology.
"The most important of these now is offshore wind; onshore wind companies, as long as they can find the site and can build, are doing very nicely, but offshore wind is the technology we're looking to bring in and it's stuck."
Exploring the tides
Before the review's publication there had been speculation that the Severn Barrage concept, a 10-mile long tidal power installation spanning the Severn Estuary which could generate 5% of Britain's electricity, would be given government backing.
But the review came up short, promising instead that the government would join other interested parties in "exploring the issues arising on the tidal resource in the UK".
While this will please conservation groups alarmed at a project which they believe carries dire ecological consequences, one of the potential barrage builders was less enthusiastic.
"It's not as positive as we would wish," said Roger Hull, spokesman for the Severn Tidal Power Group, a consortium of major construction companies including Balfour Beatty and Taylor Woodrow.
The barrage would stretch 10 miles across the Bristol Channel
"In a sense, though, it says what we would have wanted it to say because we're confident there is nothing else out there which is able to produce the power that the barrage will produce," he told the BBC News website.
"So if there is to be an official comparison of the different tidal technologies, that should suit us."
Reduce and survive
Producing more renewable energy is of course only one possible answer to rising energy demand; using less is the other, infinitely preferable in some peoples' eyes.
The review sets out several measures for increasing Britain's energy efficiency, including:
- giving consumers better information on electricity usage and costs
- ensuring better compliance with building regulations
- incentivising energy suppliers to help householders reduce energy use
- removing the least efficient products from the market
But much of the detail on how these pledges are to be met is as yet absent.
"There are some very positive words in there - advice to consumers, building regulations, restrictions on retailers," said Tim Curtis, director of operations at the Energy Saving Trust.
"But what we're looking for are more specifics in some areas.
"We're predicting a doubling of electrical consumption from electronic gadgets in the next five years - we want to have more gadgets in our homes, and the digital switch-over is coming which will be very important.
"It's very laudable to talk about negotiations with manufacturers and the EU to remove the least efficient products from the market, but my question is when?"
Overall, the energy review contains a bit for everyone. Nuclear enthusiasts can foresee a bright new dawning of fission power; wind lovers see moves which can hasten the turbines' march across Britain; would-be home generators are a step closer to achieving electrical independence.
Big questions remain to be address in several areas, not least how the grid system can accommodate both major megawatt generators and a plethora of householders doing it themselves.
As always, projections of carbon savings depend on other projections.
The government's assertion that their measures will bring emissions 13% to 17% below what they otherwise would have been in 2020 is going to be contentious.
They recently admitted that the prior target of a 20% reduction on 1990 levels by 2010 will not be met.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the review is that it concentrates on electricity generation at the expense of transport, which receives far less extensive treatment.