Britain is trying to water down tough new European legislation to boost the uptake of renewable energy, despite a pledge by Gordon Brown last month to launch a "green revolution" based on clean technology.
Documents obtained by the Guardian show the UK wants to block attempts to give renewable electricity sources such as wind farms priority access to the national grid. The European official who drafted the legislation accused Britain of "obstructing" EU efforts on renewables and said UK officials wanted to protect traditional energy suppliers and their coal, gas and nuclear power stations.
Claude Turmes, a Luxembourg MEP and architect of the EU renewables directive, said: "This would take us backwards and would weaken the possibilities of connecting renewable energy to the grid. A government that says it wants to promote renewables cannot go for other policies behind the scenes."
The renewables directive is intended to support an EU target to generate 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020.
On access to the electricity grid, the draft directive said: "Member states shall also provide for priority access to the grid system of electricity produced from renewable energy sources".
However, documents seen by the Guardian show Britain wants to change "shall" to "may" - which experts say would seriously undermine the directive. Turmes said the original wording was based on a similar policy used successfully to boost renewables in Germany, Spain and Denmark, and was meant to help countries "kick dirty energy sources like coal off the grid".
A lack of connections to the national grid, which was not designed to channel power from the scattered and remote locations that suit renewables, has stalled the uptake of alternative energy in Britain and led to completed wind farms across Scotland standing idle. A recent report from the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills said 9.3GW of wind power projects were currently waiting to be connected - the equivalent of a new generation of nuclear power stations.
Last month, ministers launched a renewables strategy on how to meet the UK's share of the EU 2020 target, which requires Britain to generate 15% of its energy from clean sources.
The strategy included steps on "removing grid access as a barrier to renewables deployment". Gordon Brown said it would remove "without delay the barriers that currently prevent renewable generators connecting to the national grid".
But the strategy also noted that the draft EU directive obliged member states to give priority grid access to renewables, and said the government was working to "clarify this obligation".
At a meeting of the EU energy working group this week, leaked documents show British officials tabled several amendments to the draft directive, including changing "member states shall also provide priority access to the grid ..." to "member states may also provide access ...".
Oliver Schäfer, policy director of the European Renewable Energy Council, said: "It might look like a minor thing to change the word "shall" to "may", but in terms of policy it's a major change. The word "may" means nothing when it comes to legislation."
Britain's justification for the change, included in the document, was that it was concerned about relying too heavily on intermittent renewablewable sources of electricity. It said: "The use of 'shall' could have substantial implications on network balancing and security of energy supply." It said "thermal sources" of electricity were needed as back-up, and "over time this essential back-up generation might not be available if new renewable generation projects must be given access to the grid". It said the UK wanted the "discretion to prioritise renewable generation".
Turmes said other countries including Spain, Germany and Denmark had experienced no problems giving priority to clean energy, and that large scale renewables such as offshore wind were no more intermittent than existing energy sources.
He said: "This is not a technical problem. Britain just does not want to make the choice to promote renewables, and that means it is lining up with the worst countries in Europe on this issue." He said he was concerned Britain's lead could be followed by France and that the directive would be weakened.
Turmes claimed the UK position was influenced by energy companies. "The incumbent operators want to make life difficult for newcomers."
A spokesman for the DBERR said: "Priority access for renewables is not necessary for us to meet our fair share of the EU renewables target. What renewable generators want is quicker access to the grid, not priority access. The UK is already taking significant steps to remove grid access barriers for renewables."
John Sauven, of Greenpeace, said: "We've always said there was a danger that going for nuclear power would squeeze out renewables. The government has been caught red handed undermining clean energy, and all because of Brown's ideological obsession with atomic power."