The Westcountry’s promising renewable energy sector could play an “increasing role” in limiting Britain’s reliance on expensive foreign gas imports.
With no new major power stations – including the second generation nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset – expected to be operational in the next decade, the country’s power needs will increasingly hinge on imports.
That exposure could ultimately lead to rising household bills, particularly given the narrowing margin between electricity generation and demand.
Merlin Hyman, chief executive of the green energy group Regen SW, said only the renewables sector, particularly proven technologies such as wind turbines and photovoltaics, could respond in the timescales concerned.
“We have excellent renewable energy resources in the South West and if we invest in them, it would reduce our reliance on foreign gas,” he said. “I always say I would prefer to be reliant on British wind than Russian gas.
“The renewables industry is well placed to play a role, that’s not to say in the next two years we will be completely reliant on renewables to fill that gap, but they will definitely play an increasing role because they can be deployed pretty quickly.
“In terms of solar energy, two years ago there was 10MW of capacity in the South West, now that has risen to 500MW which shows how rapidly they can be deployed.”
Mr Hyman said the industry faced a number of issues including council’s “local plans”.
Developers also needed to work more closely with communities, delivering more local benefits, if projects were to go ahead. Ofgem also needed to approve investment in the local grid to enable more power generation schemes.
Dr Peter Connor, senior lecturer in renewable energy at the University of Exeter, said global demand for energy had risen for “decades” while government policies, now focusing on security of supply, had been driven by the need for cheap power.
If the coalition Government back-tracked on promises not to subsidise the second generation of nuclear power stations then taxpayers or consumers could be left picking up the bill. He warned that “prices could go through the roof” adding: “We will pay for it one way or another.”
The South West was designated as a “marine energy park” by the Government last year making the region the sector’s focal point in the UK.
Cornwall’s Wave Hub, a wave energy “nursery” in Falmouth Bay, and research facilities at Plymouth and Exeter universities, are all key to the “virtual” park plan which will gravitate around the ports of Falmouth, Hayle, Plymouth and Bristol.
That’s been boosted by news that Plymouth had been fast tracked for City Deal status, a scheme designed to kick-start growth in the regions.
Johnny Gowdy, programme director at Regen SW, said: “The Plymouth City Deal vision is to establish the city as a global centre of marine science and marine technologies.
“Their plans include a focus on the commercialisation of new technology through the establishment of a ‘production campus’ for technology integration and a programme of initiatives to improve the productivity and export potential of marine-based enterprises.
“This is exactly the sort of local enterprise support and investment that new industries such as marine energy need in order to reach their commercial potential.”