In 1433 the Chinese Emperor grounded the Imperial fleet. At the time, it was probably the greatest naval power in the world. No one is 100% sure why this happened, but the Emperor may have felt the cost was unjustified. Ships continued to sail from China and trade with its neighbours went on, but the huge armadas which had dominated the Indian Ocean, conquered lands and projected Chinese military and economic might around the region were finished.
A few decades later two relatively weak European nations, the Portuguese and Spanish, discovered routes to Asia and, most importantly, the Americas. The rest is history.
It need not have happened that way. The Chinese, the Venetians, the Ottomans and even some West African Kingdoms might all have been the ones to ‘discover’ the Americas and lead the conquest and colonization and genocide that followed. Or perhaps they would have done things differently. We will never know.
My point is that technological advances in the 15th and 16th centuries meant that it was only a matter of time before the oceans opened up. New ships and methods of navigation were making what had previously been flukes or rare journeys more reliable and possible. The desire to access essential commodities provided the political and financial support, which in turn drove more innovation.
In Europe, as in other places, some administrations turned their back on overseas voyages. Other embraced them.
The argument I am trying to make is that I believe we are seeing something similar with renewable energy. We are at a stage now where the technology is advancing faster than either policy makers or commentators can keep up with, and it is global in nature. The nexus of advancing renewable technology, IT and political pressure means that energy systems that just a few years ago seemed hopelessly expensive are now outcompeting fossil fuels. Costs are plummeting. Utilities are buckling under the strain. Grids will need redesigning. Fortunes will be made and lost. There will be huge changes to come.
So far the UK has done okay in promoting renewables, and is on course for 30% of electricity supplies by 2020. Sadly things are now changing. The new government appears to have gotten cold feet and is actively hacking away at the energy framework – slashing subsidies and imposing planning restrictions and market barriers to lock out technologies that no longer need support. Its reasons are often spurious. At the same time they are backing more polluting and more expensive systems, for political reasons. Perhaps this is all just a prelude to a fantastic new raft of policies, but I will not hold my breath.
Fortunately I’m an optimist. Every time one of these new policy attacks is announced there is pressure from the press and some of my colleagues to cry out that the government is ‘killing renewables’ and that all is lost. So far I have tried to resist. The reason is simple. I don’t think this government has the power to kill renewables.
I think renewables are bigger, further reaching and more powerful than this government. We may risk falling behind, the UK may be overtaken by newer, more confident entrants to this field, but the changes unleashed by renewables are huge and ongoing. Like the French government, which tried to develop an alternative internet in the early 1990s, the UK government will be overtaken by events.
I am not suggesting that this means that the government’s attacks on renewables don’t matter – they do, and not just because the UK risks falling behind in the global renewables stakes.
Climate change demands urgent action, and rich countries must be willing to lead. At the same time locking us in to high-carbon infrastructure could put up emissions for years to come, no matter what we do. There are problems too of the kind of new energy system that may emerge – will it benefit the many or be rigged for the few. Nor is the cost of renewables the only relevant factor. In the absence of alternatives we would be advocating renewables to tackle climate change anyway.
I think what I am trying to say is ‘take heart’. This are moving in ways we cannot predict, and this government will no more be able to kill renewable energy than the Emperors of China killed ocean going travel.