Unprecedented opportunity for growth not to be squandered

The renewables sector needs policy certainty to build on the successes of 2012, says chief executive of RenewableUK Maria McCaffery

It has been an extraordinarily successful year for the wind, wave and tidal energy industries RenewableUK represents. We have now installed more than 7.5 gigawatts (GW) of onshore and offshore wind energy – enough to provide electricity for more than five million British homes.

At current levels of growth, wind energy will power one in ten of our homes within the next two years. The UK wind industry already employs more than 12,000 people, and the wave and tidal sector is expected to employ a similar number when it reaches commercial maturity in the coming years.

The onshore wind industry was worth £548 million to the UK economy in 2011. Offshore, in September alone three wind farms opened in UK waters representing a capital investment of more than £2 billion. These examples give some idea of the scale and ambition of this dynamic sector and we must ensure the chance to grow is not squandered.

To this end, the sector needs a clear policy framework to create confidence in renewable energy and to engender a positive climate for investors.

The draft Energy Bill now being scrutinised by MPs offers a historic opportunity to build such a framework. The most radical shake-up of the energy market for decades, it can send a clear signal that UK plc is open for business, determined to grow our economy and meet our climate change obligations.

Although the minutiae are complex, this devilish detail holds the key to unlocking much needed investment in a new generation of energy supply. RenewableUK is working hard with government to ensure that the Bill encourages growth.

Even in the most attractive investment climate, deploying renewables at the pace we need is only possible with support from local communities. Developers already consult widely and thoroughly, and the wind industry is responding positively to the government’s call for even closer public consultation, ensuring that local people share in the economic benefits we generate.

At current levels of growth, wind energy will power one in ten of our homes within the next two years

For example, a couple of weeks ago the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, opened Stow Play Park, for children aged five to eleven, at a local primary school in the Scottish Borders. It was built using funds from the Long Park Wind Farm Community Trust Fund, a good example of developers working with local people. Community groups in the parish of Stow receive about £45,000 a year, and they decide how to spend it. Companies recognise the importance of building up positive relationships with host communities and want to support local improvements. We are actively looking at other ways to engage, so watch this space.

Public support for the greater deployment of wind energy remains strong, with opinion polls throughout this year consistently showing support levels of around 70 per cent. Independent polls show public support is slightly higher in rural areas, where onshore wind farms are sited, than in urban areas.

The reasons include support for clean energy, reducing dependence on expensive, dirty fossil fuels from unpredictable regimes, creating employment – more than 76,000 jobs by the end of this decade – bringing billions of pounds of investment into the UK and safeguarding the environment for future generations.

The economic benefits are already enormous. Last month for example, Tata Steel opened a £2-million offshore wind manufacturing plant in Hartlepool, safeguarding 700 jobs.

The wind industry has reached a number of milestones this year. We now have more than 2.5GW of offshore wind installed in UK waters, making us the world leader in offshore wind, with a greater capacity than the rest of the world put together – enough to power more than 1.8 million homes.

Wave and tidal energy is also making real progress with a series of commitments over the last few months to fund the testing of full-scale devices in the water. According to the Carbon Trust, the wave and tidal sector could generate 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs, creating 10,000 jobs in the UK. RenewableUK is urging the Green Investment Bank, which has not identified marine energy as a priority sector, to find a way to support the development of wave and tidal technology.

With the right support framework from government, we can continue to deliver the jobs, investment and environmental benefits offered by the technologies we represent. The successful expansion of renewable energy is an extraordinary opportunity which this country cannot afford to miss.

Maria McCaffery has served on a succession of government advisory groups, including an ongoing role with UK Trade & Investment; previously she was director general of the Institute of Export and international director at The British Chambers of Commerce.