The present administration of the UK likes to boast of its ‘joined-up’ government but anecdotes suggest that, even if the writing is cursive (ie in joined-up letters), left hands and right hands not infrequently produce disconnected scripts. Some of those tales have been told at a conference organised by a cross-party group of UK politicians sharing interests in renewable energy.

Perhaps the best (I hear from a colleague who was there) was retailed by Nick Goodall, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association. Reviewing the UK renewables scene for his 150-strong audience of policy wonks and activists in a hall near the British Houses of Parliament, Goodall asked what kind of joined-up government it was that had classified horse manure from farms as the raw material of biofuel, but had turned its nose up at comparable products as ‘industrial waste’ when they came from racing stables.

‘Clean coal’ received shrift almost as short as did nuclear power at this conference. One of the speakers was Tom Delay, a professional engineer who had only days previously become chief executive of a new not-for-profit government-initiated company called The Carbon Trust. Despite its name this turned out to be not altogether for those with faith in the eponymous element. Rather than relishing the UK’s coal abundance its aim was to encourage ‘the take-up by business of low carbon technology’ and to promote the adaptation of business to ‘the challenge presented by climate change’. No less a figure than the UK’s prime minister, Tony Blair, had enthusiastically charged the Trust with the task of leading low carbon technology and innovation, not only in his own country but internationally too.

In the nineteenth century Britain’s coal was the hydrocarbon energy resource that powered an industrial revolution and helped to create the remarkable wealth of a leading western nation. An influential twentieth century politician claimed that Britain’s fuel and food supplies were assured because the island was ‘built on coal and surrounded by fish’. Today the country’s coal mining industry is vestigial, and even its offshore fishing is fraught. In the twentieth century, oil and gas were discovered off shore and they added hugely to the UK’s hydrocarbon cornucopia, but now the fields may be within sight of exhaustion, economically if not physically. Yet at the conference the great future prosperity of the nation was still seen as procurable from its energy plenty, for it possesses the greatest wind, wave and tidal resources in the European Union.

Daniel Archard, a policy development officer on the staff of a British regulatory body, The Environment Agency, offered the conference a discussion document, titled A sustainable energy vision for the UK, in which he suggested the composition of ‘a high-performance energy system based upon renewable energy sources and a substantially reduced fossil fuel input’. He imagined that in 2050 the UK would be ‘on the brink of realising a full hydrogen economy’. The intermittent energy flows from renewable sources would converge for storage in hydrogen, the main energy carrier in the economy, even perhaps to the exclusion of electricity transmission. Hydrogen-fed fuel cells would power electrical, heating and transport services.

It was poignant, says my colleague, to hear a conference contribution by Lord Ezra, the man who, a few decades ago, led the then-state-owned British coal industry. In his day, as Sir Derek Ezra, he vigorously promoted the use of coal and advanced coal technology, expecting (as did most of his contemporaries) the construction of bigger and better coal-fired power stations to continue until at least the year 2000*. Ennobled, and thus now a UK parliamentarian of the upper house, he is still a great promoter. He addressed his mainly carbonophobic fellows at the conference as chairman of Micropower Ltd, a company that he founded in 2000 to bring together firms interested in the perceived contemporary international trend away from large-scale generation, transmission and distribution of power. Plainly, pragmatically, sensibly, he has moved with the times, welcoming renewables and small-scale generation embedded in distribution networks.