Last week we ran a story detailing how several figures within the renewable energy industry are frustrated with the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) and its increasingly high-profile campaign against subsidies for renewable energy in general and wind farms in particular. Somewhat unsurprisingly given the contentious nature of anything to do with wind farms, the story prompted quite a heated debate among readers, with some springing to the defence of the REF and others siding with those renewable energy firms that object to the group's campaigning tactics.
Like many comment threads, the discussion quickly moved slightly off topic and began debating the merits of renewable energy subsidies, the efficacy of wind farms and the ethics of lobbying, rather than the initial issue of whether the REF is justified to use a name that creates the impression it is in favour of renewable energy when it is opposed to many of the subsidy mechanisms that make renewable energy projects economically viable.
As such, I thought it might be worth clarifying my views on the REF. In short, I am a fan of much of its work.
It has an effective and mischievous campaigning style and articulate spokespeople. Its interpretations of renewable energy policy may well be contested by many within the industry, but its use of publicly available figures to highlight the way in which some wind farms, on some occasions, deliver relatively low levels of energy are a valid contribution to the debate.
I would also argue that, on balance, it has a point when it argues that certain forms of renewable energy have become over-subsidised. Wind turbine manufacturers publicly boast that modern, well-located turbines are now so efficient they can generate energy at close to grid prices, while even environmental campaigner George Monbiot, a life-long supporter of renewable energy, has argued that some of the incentives available through the feed-in tariff scheme are over generous. Personally, I'd reject any suggestion that subsidies should be axed altogether – the industry is still relatively young and requires support if it is to grow at the required rate, while the catastrophe that is UK planning policy means strong incentives are required to encourage developers to invest in projects that may well face years of planning delays. But all subsidies and incentives have to be assessed on a regular basis to ensure they do not become over-generous.
I'd disagree with many of the other arguments the REF makes – the grid will evolve to support higher levels of renewable energy output; we can't afford to wait for some miracle clean technology breakthrough, and if wind turbines are proposed in low-wind areas, it is up to the planning authorities to reject them. But the group is still entirely justified in making those arguments.
The REF also helps keep the renewable energy industry on its toes and ensures that it constantly has to publicly justify the subsidies it receives and the policies from which it benefits, this may be frustrating for some within the sector, but it is actually a useful discipline for an emerging industry to master.
However, as the initial article made plain, the central thrust of the complaints against the REF are less about what it does and more about the banner under which it does it.
The group is entirely justified to continue its campaign against renewable energy subsidies, but is it fair to suggest through its name that it is pro-renewable energy when the vast majority of renewable energy firms, green campaigners and environmental economists all believe some form of financial support is required to allow the sector to compete on a level playing field with the fossil fuel industry?
In my experience, the group does not speak for the vast majority of people within the renewable energy industry and as such it is unreasonable for it to use a name that suggests it may do, particularly when media outlets from the BBC to the Telegraph use the group's research and spokespeople without explaining the necessary context.
That is my main criticism of the REF and I would even argue that it would strengthen its own campaign if it adopted a name that better reflected its goals. The renewable energy sector and its opponents could then continue with the serious business of conducting a proper debate on the future of the UK's energy mix without resorting to accusations and counter-accusations of smears and misleading campaigning.
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