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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 12 July 2006

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Wind Energy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), I welcome all hon. Members to this sitting in Westminster Hall. In order that Members should be comfortable, I am prepared to use an element of discretion and allow them to remove their jackets. I am showing some progressiveness that perhaps is not associated with me in normal circumstances.

9.30 am

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to you, Sir Nicholas, first for calling me to speak and secondly for your kindness in allowing us not to treat this Room as a free sauna, given the warmth of the day.

I sought to initiate this debate to consider the contribution of wind energy to the national interest in the broadest sense. The debate is about power and energy, and about the power of the people linked to the power of the wind. It is about the empowerment of people and sustainable development, and how wind power can benefit the environment, the economy and the community. I am delighted to be joined in the debate by someone who knows a great deal about these topics, the former environment Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). I am particularly pleased that my good friend the Minister for Energy will reply to the debate.

This debate comes a day after the statement on the energy review, and it is easy to despair at the facile way in which energy issues are often discussed and reported. The complex issues of supply that my hon. Friend the Minister has been grappling with in the review, which are crucial to our future and our economy, are reduced to the simplistic question, “Are you for or against nuclear?” I sometimes despair of the profession in which I started my working life, before I earned remission for good behaviour as a youth worker. Another issue that is reduced to a knee-jerk reaction is the question, “Are you in favour of wind farms?” That often gets two distinct answers from the same people at the same time. They say yes in general, but, “No, if it’s in my back yard”—or perhaps that should be “No, if it’s on my hill”.

The picture of protestors opposing wind generation is all too familiar to us all. They tell councillors to reject the planning application, as a community united in opposition. We often do not even bother to read the caption. I want to test that. I have with me a photograph of a crowd of protestors outside the council offices in Neath Port Talbot. They are against the planning application, are they not, and telling the council to turn it down? No. They are the supporters of
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Awel Aman Tawe, based in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). They are protesting against the proposal that the council should turn down their application for a four turbine, 11 MW community wind farm on Mynydd y Gwrhyd, 20 miles north of Swansea—Awel Aman Tawe. I also have statements of support from a wide range of local people, many clearly excited and inspired by the project.

I shall not go into the planning issues because there is an appeal under way to resolve the issue. I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that local opinion is coloured by at least one local application, I think in the upper Amman valley, which has sparked opposition in the community as it is believed that it is being imposed on them from outside with big business deciding the future for the local community. That is not the case with Awel Aman Tawe, and that is at the heart of this debate.

It is clear that Awel Aman Tawe demonstrates well the three strands of sustainable development—the environmental, the economic and the social. The benefits for the local community include more than £4 million over the life of the project for community projects, such as micro-renewables and energy efficiency, 32 new jobs, and construction contracts for local suppliers worth an estimated £1.5 million. It will generate enough clean energy to supply the equivalent of almost 7,000 homes, and last but not least it will help to combat global warming.

Although the planning system is dealing with the appeal, the message of community involvement is very clear. Indeed, perhaps the planning system should be able to take much greater notice of factors such as community ownership into account instead of being neutral on issues of ownership. The independent body Electoral Reform Services carried out a referendum on behalf of Awel Aman Tawe and found that almost 60 per cent. of local residents supported the development of a community wind farm. Compared with a so-called commercial initiative, the technology, the benefit, the price per kilowatt and the financial reward are the same, but for the local community it is not someone from outside coming in to do something to that community. The community owns it and controls it, and it is in its hands.

The situation is the same with the Baywind energy co-operative, which has grown from a community base in Cumbria to win the social enterprise award for the environment, which I was delighted to present to the group. It is the same for the communities that have worked with Energy4All, which is a spin-off from Baywind, to enable communities throughout the land to learn from the Baywind experience and take control of the energy supply from renewables in their area.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Co-operative Group may be the UK’s biggest farmer but it has shown a sense of community interest. As a Co-operative MP, I am pleased to see the link between the activities of the big beast of the co-operative movement and the approach of organisations such as Awel Aman Tawe and Baywind. The Co-operative Group is the UK’s largest consumer-owned co-operative business and it aims to drive commercial success through true environmental and social
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responsibility. In other words, it seeks to live up to the ideals of the Rochdale pioneers all those years ago.

In 2004, the group switched its power supply across 3,000 sites throughout the mainland UK to renewable energy generated from wind farms or hydropower. Co-operative Financial Services and the Co-operative Group together now account for 790 GWh of renewable purchase each year, which is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s onshore wind output. The CIS—Co-operative Insurance—solar tower is the largest ever application of photovoltaic panels in the UK. In Manchester earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe opened the UK’s biggest inner-city micro-wind farm, involving 19 micro-wind turbines, on the CFS Portland street building.

The link to Awel Aman Tawe is that last Thursday, 6 July, saw the official switch-on of the Coldham wind farm in Cambridgeshire as a joint venture between the Co-operative Group and ScottishPower, engaging the local community. It is a £17 million, eight turbine wind farm that will realise enough green energy to power 9,000 homes and to save 36,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. That is because the group

Those are not my words, but those of the group’s chief executive, Martin Beaumont.

The significance of that development could increase, because there are plans to develop wind turbine schemes that could lead to the supply of 100 GW of electricity to the national grid within three years, which is enough to power more than 20,000 homes. That includes plans for a second, larger wind farm with 14 turbines at Goole in Humberside, also on Co-op farm land. That is also why Co-operative Action is supporting the Baywind energy co-operative. Baywind was formed in 1996, and today, with more than 1,300 members, owns five wind turbines near Ulverston and one in Cumbria.

I am also pleased to learn that in Wales Energy4All’s manager, Steve Cranston, is contacting all the developers involved in bidding on Forestry Commission land to request some aspect of community ownership as part of technical advice note 8, which is known as TAN 8. Energy4All is working with Nuon in Wales and hopes to progress an agreement with Airtricity through Dulas.

The potential of the development is huge and growing. I am told that for every community project that Energy4All is involved in, it receives another 100 inquiries. Yet that sector receives no Government support. I want to make it clear that I am arguing not for subsidy, but for cash and support to nurture and help the capacity building that is vital in community ownership and co-operative developments and for the Government to get stuck into the nitty-gritty of the work that is necessary to enable the sector to take off at an even faster rate.

Let us consider some of the projects, such as Westmill wind farm co-operative in Oxfordshire. Energy4All took over full development of the five turbine site in August 2005 and raised £4.4 million over Christmas to build the first onshore wind farm in the
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south-east, which is 100 per cent. community owned. The development of the project is of significant strategic importance for social enterprises as well as for onshore wind use.

There is also the case of Beech farm in Tavistock, where a public inquiry is due to be held in October. The appeal, for two 850 kW turbines, was brought by the landowners, Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, against West Devon council. The inspector has requested a section 106 agreement to confirm that the site will develop as a co-operative if successful.

If anyone is in doubt, let me spell out the benefits of community involvement and ownership. It encourages proactive rather than reactive community engagement and accountability—the community is not simply being consulted about something that is done to it; it is involved. It responds to the concerns and needs of local people, and it ensures the efficient targeting of investment.

Community involvement and ownership raises awareness of the need for action on climate change. We need to engage the whole of the population in dealing with that issue; acting alone, the Government will make slow progress. It delivers key public services in partnership with local authorities. It delivers also direct accountability for stakeholders and energy consumers. It develops the capacity for smaller projects, which depend on investors accepting a lower return. Sites that are closer to demand may therefore be on less sensitive sites, and the community will support the development.

Such involvement also delivers direct economic benefits and revenue streams for members. It brings together and co-ordinates complex relationships between key stakeholders for biomass and district heating schemes. Such schemes often fail because of a lack of engagement and support, again because people feel that something is being done to them. Investment is mobilised from members and the wider community, which is significant in meeting the Government’s objectives. It supports longer-term infrastructure investment.

Embedded energy is, of its nature, more efficient. It develops tailored local solutions to project delivery. It attracts new skills and jobs into the social enterprise sector at local level. I believe that those advantages are enormously important. It is wonderful stuff. The country that invented co-operation and social enterprise should be proud of it, yet community renewables have made slower progress in the United Kingdom than in other north European countries.

The three key reasons for that have been identified as finance, time and knowledge. The key is not massive grants or Government schemes but access to finance and a better understanding by national and local bureaucracies of how to nurture the sector’s potential. It is not just a question of looking for the quantum of wind energy; we need to recognise that engaging people can release existing potential.

Energy4All has called on the Government to give direct funding to the social enterprise sector, to pay for staff time and to provide risk funding through the revolving loan fund, which will allow communities to take appropriate schemes forward. The House should mark my words: I underline and support that approach. A revolving loan fund does not have to be a
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drag on the Exchequer, but it will not happen without some Government help to facilitate and accelerate the process.

There is also a huge demand for the Government to provide access to renewable energy information and expertise to ensure that good quality schemes in all technologies can move forward; thus, we can gain the multiple benefits of rural and urban sustainable heat and power.

In summary, community involvement, accountability and ownership is the key to achieving the successful integration of distributed renewable generation schemes, which will largely be below 10 MW. Current support is dispersed and inefficient, so it cannot deal with the current barriers or meet public demand.

Support and facilitation for community, individual and business-owned renewable energy schemes has the potential to play a key role in unblocking the economically viable potential of all technologies. If structured appropriately, the cost of assistance through information and financial support will represent considerable value for money, given the anticipated social, economic and environmental returns.

We know the environmental benefits of maximising the use of wind energy; it will cut emissions and reduce dependence on nuclear power. However, some people still think that its impact on the rural environment is negative. For example, the briefing provided for today’s debate by the Campaign to Protect Rural England was not wholly negative about wind energy, but it was disappointing and lacking in vision. It damned wind energy with faint praise, so I shall take its argument head on.

I was brought up on the edge of Snowdonia. I spent years introducing young people to its finest landscapes. I have had ministerial responsibility for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in Wales and England. The last thing that I want to see is a wind farm on Moel Siabod or Striding Edge. However, I am amazed that people who can ignore the ugly intrusion of electricity pylons striding across our countryside—are they invisible, perhaps because they have been there for decades?—are opposed to wind farms, which can be a calming and even an inspirational sight as one comes over the brow of a hill.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on initiating such a timely debate. He spoke of pylons striding across our countryside, and I share his concern about that. Would he not concede that if we continue with the current policy of developing large-scale wind farms of above 50 MW, for example, in areas on the edge of Snowdonia, even more pylons will be striding across our countryside?

Alun Michael: No, I do not.

I have stood at the roadside looking at a small number of wind turbines on one side of the valley and seeing pylons further up—pylons not associated with the wind farm—yet people say that the turbines are ugly, and that they do not like them. I ask them to compare the two. When one walks over the brow of a hill and sees the turbines of a wind farm one can see
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that, in the right place, they are attractive. They generate energy in a way that is socially and visually attractive.

What is the reason for that knee-jerk reaction? Many people have become used not only to pylons but to the extraction of minerals in some of our most beautiful landscapes; it does not arouse their anger, yet they have a knee-jerk opposition to wind farms, even those sited in appropriate locations in the countryside. I do not understand it. It does not make sense. The answer is that it depends on who is establishing the wind farms and for whom. If wind turbines are imposed by big business to make a quick buck—or even, as some perceive it, imposed by the Government—then resentment will kick in. Judgments are made, but not always by those who have to live with the consequences.

I want my hon. Friend the Minister to promise two things. First, I ask him to make it clear that wind energy will be owned by the community and that if big companies or bodies such as the Co-operative Group want to come in, they will have to show the community benefit, community support and genuine engagement. I ask him also to set requirements that will test objectively whether schemes are community led.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend to support and promote the practice of community wind farm ownership that I have outlined. We all know that the principles of community ownership—co-operation and mutuality—have great power. They bring long-term benefits. They have the power to move mountains. However, that approach needs to be nurtured and, as I said earlier, that involves cash, time and knowledge.

My hon. Friend will recall that I supplied him with a copy of a publication commissioned by Peter Hunt of Mutuo entitled “Community engagement in energy through energy mutuals”. It was researched by Dr. Gill Owen, and I provided an introduction. It made two clear recommendations about how to remove the barriers for community engagement though energy mutuals.

The first recommendation was that the Government should take the lead, perhaps through a community energy unit, in maximising and harvesting the benefits that have been demonstrated—for instance, by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I do not want to suggest a specific solution to my hon. Friend; I ask him to accept the principle and seek the best way to ensure that the Government are proactive in nurturing such an approach.

The second recommendation was that a renewable heat obligation should be put in place. I am encouraged by the interest shown yesterday in expressing the output of the energy industry in terms of heat and light rather than in specific forms of energy. The Mutuo booklet was ahead of its time in that respect; I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that it is now part of mainstream thinking.

I have tried to show that wind energy can provide the classic benefits of democracy, especially when linked to the key Government principle of sustainable development—the principle that, in all we do, we should balance and integrate economic, social and environmental considerations. The problem is that those factors are dealt with in separate silos of Government. The publication of the energy review
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report and yesterday’s statement give my hon. Friend a unique opportunity to take the leadership in bringing those three aspects together. What better example than community-owned wind generation? If Whitehall takes it seriously, the Government could have a win-win-win situation.

It is obvious that maximising renewable energy is key to our future. We would be mad not to support it; it helps feed the energy needs of our national economy. It is also obvious, is it not, that wind energy benefits the environment, whether the countryside or our global future?

Clearly, a community empowered to make its own decisions is likely to choose the wind turbine option, which helps the national and international interest. Above all, that option would help it meet its own energy needs, become at best a new contributor instead of a net consumer and learn to be empowered to make its own decisions in a national and international context.

The issue is urgent; we are trailing in seventh place on installed wind capacity. Germany leads the way with 18,400 MW, followed by Spain with 10,000 MW and the USA with 9,100 MW. Capacity is hardly proportionate to size. The UK has the greatest wind resource in Europe, yet we are not using it. I want to help the Minister change that picture. Wind power’s time has come, and I urge the Minister to be brave and help Whitehall understand the creative opportunity before it. My plea is that we should enable community wind energy to support the Government in what they and my hon. Friend the Minister are trying to do.

I understand the Minister’s challenges; he has to balance costs and needs, the national interest, the protection of supplies and the energy mix necessary for this country to have a productive future. Will he acknowledge that the power of the people and the community, linked to the production of wind energy, has a part to play in his strategy? With his support and encouragement, people are far more likely to face the big challenges set out in yesterday’s statement. Let the people be part of the solution, rather than being perceived as part of the problem.

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