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01 Jan 2013

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Britain had the opportunity during the 1970s to establish itself as a world-leading centre for renewable energy technology. In the early 1980s, Britain was well placed to capitalise on its early lead. But the government baulked at the increased expenditure required to take devices to the next stage of development, choosing instead to stick with nuclear energy. Thus, Britain failed to grasp a rare opportunity to take an early lead in renewable energy development.

These are among the findings of research by Campbell Wilson, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2010 annual conference. He notes that the UK has the best renewable energy resources in Europe – but we have allowed our competitors to dominate the industry, and failed to take early advantage of those vast, free and infinite energy sources?

The UK government began investing money in the development of renewable energy sources 36 years ago – but depressingly little progress has been achieved and today they account for only a tiny percentage of UK energy consumption.

On 8 January this year, a heavyweight government team, featuring the Prime Minister and Peter Mandelson, gathered the press for a big energy announcement. The government was to invest £75bn in a new offshore wind programme – 25GW of capacity – which by 2020 could create around 70,000 British jobs.

But this could all be too little, too late. Influential commentators were quick to point out that before the new offshore wind farms would be ready, an energy gap would emerge in the UK as old coal and nuclear plants are mothballed over the next ten years. Others highlighted the fact that following the Vestas factory closure in 2009, the UK has no commercial turbine manufacturing capacity, and the investment would create as many jobs in Denmark and Germany as in the UK itself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before the facts of climate change became known and accepted, energy was dominated by fossil fuels – and the future appeared guaranteed by nuclear power. The discovery of North Sea oil and gas served to quell some of the anxiety caused by the oil crises of the 1970s – and when oil prices began to fall in the early 1980s, some wondered what all the fuss had been about.

My research takes a close look at the first fifteen years in the development of renewable energy sources in the UK against this background. Following the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, the UK government funded an R&D programme covering a range of renewable energy sources. Through the 1970s this was focussed on the development of wave energy – and in the 1980s on wind.

Spending on renewables R&D was at best modest when compared with the annual government R&D budget for other sources. The peak for renewables was £17.3m in 1980-81: in the same year nuclear energy R&D alone cost £203m. Yet despite financial constraints and an overly complex organisational structure, much progress was made by the device developers.

After a successful initial five years for the programme, in 1979 the election of the Conservative government signalled a distinct change in official enthusiasm for publicly funded R&D. The Thatcher government had little patience for long and costly energy R&D when nuclear power could be bought off the peg. Instantly, budgets were reduced, programmes ended, and future renewables R&D would be dependent on industry taking the place of government support.

By the 1990s, government spending on renewables was largely replaced with a complicated, and in the event unsuccessful, system of obligations placed on the newly privatised electricity generators.


‘Picking winners? Renewable energy in the UK, 1974-88’ by Campbell Wilson

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