Moving power from centre is a hot topic

Is David Cameron an old hippy in disguise? Is blue really green? Politics creates some strange bedfellows, but none so strange as the Tory party and Greenpeace.

Is David Cameron an old hippy in disguise? Is blue really green? Politics creates some strange bedfellows, but none so strange as the Tory party and Greenpeace. For a few years now Greenpeace has been pushing the green energy revolution. Just recently the Conservative Party decided to adopt an energy policy strikingly similar to the Greenpeace model and has called it "the green energy revolution".

So what is the green energy revolution?

Well, the green energy revolution is about doing something quite sensible and relatively simple. Yes folks, the next generation of power plants won't be huge, monolithic structures in the countryside. They'll be small and they'll be in our towns and cities. Yes, the next generation power plants will be . . . cogeneration power plants!

These amazing installations create heat for heating local buildings and water, and at the same time produce electricity - hence they are called combined or "co" generation.

Whereas currently we produce electricity in giant power plants and allow all the heat to disappear up the chimney, cogeneration plants generate heat for the purposes of heating nearby buildings and water. The cool bit is that they produce electricity at the same time. Whereas our centralised national grid system wastes up to two-thirds of the energy input (coal and gas) in lost heat and transmission, cogeneration plants only waste about 1/20th. Quite a saving.

Now, the other smart thing about cogeneration is that it fits in rather well with renewables. While wind and solar power fluctuate in the amount of electricity they produce, the cogeneration plant can generate the shortfall in electricity, diverting the heat to a number of different uses from heating buildings in the winter to swimming pools and space cooling in the summer. That's right. Cogeneration plants can use heat to cool buildings in much the same way that fridges use heat to cool the inside of the fridge. Combined with wind turbines and solar panels, cogeneration plants can make massive savings on gas consumption, CO2 emissions and heating bills. Sounds good, but is it realistic?

Most Read

Well, in Woking, Surrey, the borough council undertook to implement a cogeneration energy scheme. The council set up 60 installations of wind turbines, solar panel arrays and cogeneration plants to power, heat and cool municipal buildings and social housing. Woking is now almost completely self-sufficient in electricity and even produces it at a lower rate for customers in social housing. Their heating bills are also significantly below the national average. Most significantly, the council has reduced its CO2 emissions by a staggering 77pc. Wow!

This energy system that embraces a combination of cogeneration and renewables has a name. It's called decentralisation. Decentralisation means lots of local power sources rather than a few centralised power sources. This is what is being called the "green energy revolution". It isn't really a revolution, as the Netherlands and Denmark have been doing this for years and now generate 40pc and 50pc of their respective electricity supplies from decentralised sources.

It does give us a clue, though, as to why David Cameron and the Conservative Party have called nuclear power a "last resort" and embraced what they call "the green energy revolution". Decentralisation, or "the green energy revolution" is also recognised by the government in the energy review published this week. They concede in the executive summary that "local generation allows us to capture the heat and use it nearby" and "to reduce the energy we lose in networks" and that, in combination with new technologies, it "could radically change the way we meet our energy needs".

Decentralisation is universally seen as having huge potential. The green groups have, however, warned that nuclear power would divert much of the money needed away from investment in cogeneration plants and into giant centralised power plants, slowing the development of the energy revolution. David Cameron is, rhetorically at least, appearing to agree with them. The Liberal Democrats have also embraced the new thinking on energy, as have large sections of the Labour Party. Does this mean that Tony Blair stands alone in his quest to sustain the nuclear industry?

Don't be fooled. Conservative backbenchers will not so easily discard their love affair with nuclear power, and there is one crucial area of agreement between the government and David Cameron. Local planning laws stand in the way of a quick revival of nuclear power generation.

The government intends to find ways to overcome this age-old bastion of democracy, and on this crucial issue the Tories are with them. David Cameron might well clothe himself in the colours of Greenpeace to obtain green credibility, but the first victim in this great energy debate will be local democratic accountability. A strange form of decentralisation indeed.