A new report from the Centre for Alternative Technology (www.cat.org.uk) says Britain could, with sufficient will and effort, go zero carbon in only 20 years, Germany's figures put the British government's claims to be leading the world on climate change into perspective. Germany has 200 times as much solar energy as Britain. It generates 12% of its electricity from various renewables, compared with 4.6% in Britain. It has created a quarter of a million jobs in renewables - a number that is growing fast. Britain has only 25,000, a number that represents the amount of jobs created in the industry in Germany in the past year alone.
Freiburg, a town of 200,000 people in the Black Forest, has almost as much solar photovoltaic (PV) power as the whole of Britain. Dr Dieter Wörner, director of Freiburg's environmental protection agency, admits that such is the competition among German towns that Ulm has just overtaken Freiburg as solar capital of the world.
The secret of German success is the "feed-in tariff" (FIT). Anyone generating electricity from solar PV, wind or hydro gets a guaranteed payment of four times the market rate - currently about 35p pence a unit - for 20 years. This reduces the payback time on such technologies to less than 10 years and offers a return on investment of 8-9%. The cost is spread by generating companies among all users and has added about one cent/kwh to the average bill, or an extra €1.50 (£1) a month.
The Germans introduced the FIT in 1999 and tweaked it in 2004, since which time things have gone mad. FITs have now been adopted in 19 EU countries, and 47 worldwide, but not in Britain. German renewables firms are now world beaters and the German economy has been strengthened, not weakened, by a rush into renewables.
Britain, by contrast, has a few installation companies mainly importing German equipment. At the recent Intersolar trade fair in Freiburg, the air was heady with talk of expansion, cutting-edge technologies and intense competition. And everyone says the reason is the FIT.
In Britain, going green is neither easy nor cheap. The government's stop-go attempts to stimulate renewables have made it difficult for anyone to make long-term decisions. Britain's renewables industry has struggled as grants for new technologies have been plagued by problems and were recently even slashed by the DTI, now renamed DBERR (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform). The DBERR has also restricted the list of companies it permits to carry out renewable installations, keeping prices of new technologies higher than they need be.
The government's main form of support is the "renewable obligations" system, which forces electrical generators to source a growing share of their power from renewables. Though it has had some success promoting offshore wind power, it has had little impact on microgeneration, solar power in particular. In an acknowledgement of this, the government is considering introducing banding for different technologies, but not until 2009.
Experts say it is not delivering fast enough and a campaign for a feed-in tariff is growing, although the government dismisses FITs as too "interventionist". Some British towns, frustrated at the lack of action by central government, have taken matters into their own hands. The London Borough of Merton introduced the now legendary "Merton rule" requiring any new developments to contain technology that generates at least 10% of their energy from renewables. Many councils have adopted it and some have raised the bar to 20%.
One of the UK's greenest towns is Woking, Surrey. It began moving into renewables a decade ago and now has combined heat and power and fuel cell systems providing heat and electricity to many buildings in the town centre and 600kw of installed solar PV - about 5% of Britain's total.
Pressure is growing on the government to adopt the feed-in tariff support system used in Germany and nearly 50 other countries, and now favoured by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Under the German system anyone generating electricity from solar PV, wind or hydro is guaranteed a payment of four times the market rate for 20 years. The system boosts take-up by consumers by reducing the payback times on such investments to less than 10 years - compared with 25 or 30 years in Britain - and gives industry the certainty of long-term demand to make it worthwhile investing in new factories.
Full story at http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,2132527,00.html
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