The South West could lose out on almost 20,000 new jobs in renewable energy unless growth accelerates in the sector, industry experts warn.
At present the region is on course to miss a key Government carbon emissions target to produce 15% of all energy from "clean" energy by 2020, a new report claims. As things stand, the total regional share is set to fall well short – reaching 9% by the end of the decade – and based on the current trajectory the existing total of 10,000 jobs will only see a modest rise to 15,500.
But if activity increases sufficiently to meet the UK-wide level, the number could climb to 34,000, Regen SW predicts, adding 18,500 skilled jobs to the struggling economy. The study comes just days after Western Power Distribution said the National Grid is close to capacity in parts of Devon and Cornwall, potentially making schemes "prohibitively" expensive.
Conservationists claim that large swathes of Devon and Cornwall are unsuitable for any development and say meeting the target locally could spell the widespread "destruction of the landscape".
Opponents also counter that more jobs could be lost in tourism if unsightly wind farms and hillsides plastered in solar panels drive visitors away.
Merlin Hyman, chief executive of Regen SW said: "This report shows we have made great progress in renewable energy in the past year, but we need to redouble our efforts if we are to make the most of the potential to create new jobs and thriving companies exporting their skills and expertise around the world.
"Renewable energy is a huge opportunity to generate the jobs and investment we need, but we must back key projects like offshore wind farms and put in place a framework to enable the sector to thrive."
The report Potential Energy – Potential Jobs: building a low carbon economy in south west England analyses progress in renewable energy technologies like wind, solar, marine and biomass. It will be formally launched at Renewable Energy Marketplace, the showcase event of the region's renewable energy and energy efficiency sector, in Exeter next Tuesday.
The so-called renewable "gold rush" has already pushed up the amount of electricity which can be generated by almost 60% during 2011/12 with potential output expected to jump by the same amount over the year to April.
Countryside campaigners who have been fighting a surge in plans to build wind turbines in sensitive areas say the target need not be met in the South West, provided the national mark is reached.
Bob Barfoot, North Devon chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said even huge offshore wind schemes, such as the Atlantic Array, would cause "massive impact " to the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
"We cannot meet these targets without destroying the landscape – in Devon 52% is designated for its scenic beauty and Cornwall has huge areas where we simply cannot put renewable developments," he added.
"This is a national target which does not take into account landscape designation or how various regions ought to implement it.
"We may create these jobs if we carpet the two counties with huge wind turbines and solar farms but our main economy here is tourism and people come for tranquillity and beautiful countryside."
The report calls for "clear, consistent and certain" national policy and backing for renewable energy by councils.
It wants much more investment in the local electricity grid to cope with decentralised energy and wants better engagement between local communities and developers.
Nicholas Ames, managing director of Supacat, which employs ten people on marine and offshore renewable projects, said increased support for the industry was "key to our future growth" and would help the company "grow significantly over the next few years".