Blackfriars solar bridge

The Blackfriars solar bridge is the largest of its kind in the world. (Photo: Solarcentury)

On Aug. 1, Britain opened a massive 270-megawatt offshore wind installation that will provide enough electricity to power 200,000 homes. In opening the Lincs wind farm off eastern England, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Energy Secretary Ed Davey announced a further $100 million fund to help spur the offshore wind energy industry in Britain, focusing on research to reduce costs and setting up an offshore wind investment organization to attract investment from the private sector.

This is just the latest in a long line of developments that have made the clean energy industries an increasingly major player in the U.K. economy.

From laggard to leader

As a young environmentalist growing up in England, if I had heard 10 years ago that there would be this level of activity around renewables, I would have flat-out laughed at the notion. The few wind turbines I had seen in Britain were in the remote, rural hillsides of Wales, and it seemed like the only solar panels to be found were owned by hard-core environmentalists or demonstration sites for “alternative technology” (as it was called then.).

Meanwhile, wind turbines seemed to be sprouting up in the Netherlands and Denmark like mushrooms. And it felt like Britain was being left behind.

Fast-forward to today and things look a little different:

  • I can see seven solar panel installations from my parents’ front yard. (Including one on their roof.)
  • I can view six or seven large-scale wind turbines from various vantage points in their town.
  • Large-scale solar farms are being built across the country, some of which double as bee sanctuaries.
  • I can take a trip to London and see an iconic Victorian railway bridge spanning the Thames now doubling as a solar power plant.
  • And as Renewable Energy World reported on the opening of the Lincs wind farm, the U.K. now has 3,000 MW of offshore wind capacity, compared to a global total of only 5,400 MW.
Clearly, something’s been going on since I left the country.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg flies over Lincs offshore wind farmA confluence of factors

Doubtless, there have been many key milestones in the development of U.K. renewables.

The deregulation of the energy markets has allowed private, independent companies like Ecotricity and Good Energy to sell green energy direct to consumers and private companies. Corporations like IKEA U.K. have been pledging to go 100 percent renewable. And improvements in technology have made solar, wind and other renewables considerably more competitive. (That's Deputy Prime Minister Clegg at right.)

But another important factor has been at play, a factor which is politically problematic in some circles, and that’s significant government support for clean energy.

Sustained government support (sort of)

We’ve seen Renewables Obligation Certificates mandating that electricity suppliers increase their use of clean energy. We’ve seen ambitious, legally binding emissions targets set by government. And we’ve seen a feed in tariff scheme which pays the owners of renewable energy schemes a premium for the energy they produce, making solar an attractive investment for many homeowners and businesses and creating a huge initial boom in solar installations.

None of these measures has been without controversy.

Indeed, climate-skeptic and fossil fuel-friendly forces in the coalition government have muddied the waters on decarbonization targets, and the runaway popularity of feed in tariffs resulted in a hasty restructuring of the scheme and a slashing of the returns that investors could expect, leaving many solar companies furious at the way it was rushed through (courts would later rule in solar companies’ favor). And Chancellor George Osborne has been outspoken in his criticisms of the “environmental Taliban,” and vocal about his belief in the need to develop natural gas. (Major protests are erupting in the U.K. now over fracking and natural gas exploration.)

Long-term outlook favors investing in renewables

None of this is inevitable. A rancorous anti-wind lobby continues to fight against further wind farm expansion, and the economic and political forces pushing for more fracking are considerable.

wind turbine, UK clean energy

But regardless of political maneuverings and divided opinion over what the government should be doing and whether it is enough, it does seem to me that there is an overall trend emerging: Government support for renewables in one form or another is here to stay, while the policy environment surrounding fossil fuels and whether they’ll be expected to pay the full price tag for carbon emissions in the long term should give investors with a long-term mindset considerable pause for thought.

As technologies improve (including grid-scale energy storage) and as economies of scale kick in, we can expect to see a continued reduction in the cost of clean energy. And we may indeed see a commensurate reduction in government subsidies, as the need for them becomes less.

But for all those free market evangelists who would argue that renewables must stand on their own two feet, I would encourage them to remember that we subsidize fossil fuels every day. Unless you actually believe that the overwhelming global, cross-disciplinary scientific consensus on global climate change is a deep, dark UN conspiracy, then continuing down the path of a fossil fuel-based energy supply — without factoring in the colossal economic impacts that it will have — is quite simply poor economics and terrible stewardship of our collective resources.

On a truly level playing field, most dirty fossil fuels would be priced out of the market already. The dramatic rise of renewables in the U.K. is but a prelude to the kind of innovation we could see if we really put our collective weight behind a sustainable energy future.

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Photo credits:

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg looks out of a helicopter window over the new Centrica Energy Lincs offshore wind farm near Grimbsy, England. (Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/WPA-Pool/Getty Images)

Wind Turbines at Avonmouth. (Photo: Sam Saunders/Flickr)