Previous Section Index Home Page

12 July 2006 : Column 443WH—continued

I strongly support the thrust of the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth because giving people a stake in wind farms will empower and involve them, and it is part of allowing them to make a practical contribution to combating climate change. I welcome the work that Energy4All has done on the issue. As my right hon. Friend said, I opened the wind turbine on the roof of the Co-operative Insurance Society building in Manchester, and I should like to see many more tower blocks and office blocks using microgeneration, which
12 July 2006 : Column 444WH
lends itself well to such developments and is not at all obtrusive—indeed, it looks quite good. Even factories in industrial areas have undertaken such developments, and Nissan, for example, has a wind farm on its factory site in Sunderland. I am keen to see more of that, and Corus has been talking about undertaking such a development at its site on Teesside. Urban and industrial environments are good places for on-site wind turbines that contribute to the factory’s electricity demands.

The issue on which I want to concentrate, however, is how the Government can assist the development of co-operative wind farms. I strongly endorse my right hon. Friend’s comment that it is not a question of asking for more subsidies or additional funding for developments. People need information about how they can become involved in developments. they need empowering so that they can get involved and they need the technical support and finance. The idea of a revolving fund is a good one, which the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry well recognise, and there is a strong argument for having such a fund.

To return to my original point, the great beauty of co-operative wind farms is that they address the core of sustainability. There is the social strand of sustainability, because people are brought together and empowered. There is community involvement and there has been great enthusiasm for such schemes where they have been implemented. There is also the economic strand, because people gain some economic benefit from such developments in their own communities. Of course, there has always been a benefit to landowners. Wind farms have always been quite a good deal for landowners and have been very popular with them, but it is nice that communities should be involved, too, and I am strongly in favour of that. Of course, there is also the environmental strand, because wind farms are zero-emission forms of renewable energy. We must have more of those forms of energy because we must reduce emissions in our own country.

We must demonstrate that, as the fourth richest country in the world and an advanced industrial economy, we can move to a low-carbon economy without damaging our economic growth, our gross domestic product or our communities. Indeed, I think that we are demonstrating that. We have always been a leader in many aspects of technology and science, and there is no reason why we cannot be a leader in renewable energy and catch up with countries such as Germany, Denmark, Spain and even the United States, which has invested significantly in renewables. We have an advantage because of our wind resources and our science and technology, and because many communities are well organised and have strong community leadership. All we need is a little extra help from the Government on how to tap into the benefits and take forward this form of co-operative development. That will bring about the benefits that my right hon. Friend so powerfully outlined—the benefits to our communities and our economy in terms of the overall issue of combating climate change.

10.18 am

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I should like briefly to add one dimension to the excellent debate that we have had about the merits of
12 July 2006 : Column 445WH
community wind farms and community energy in general. The Government’s energy review, which came out yesterday, and the provisional results of the energy review conducted by the Opposition both mention the future merits of distributive generation at considerable length.

Distributed generation is not just about introducing into our energy mix a substantial element of generation within homes, in addition to generation from big power sources. Certainly, the discussion about distributed generation has been concentrated on wind turbines on houses. I was delighted to hear about the progress of the wind turbine on the house of my hon. Friend the Minister, tiles permitting. Discussion has tended to concentrate on the fact that distributed generation is based on the idea that wind turbines on houses, combined heat and power boilers in houses, solar thermal equipment and solar photovoltaics on roofs can override the energy requirement in a house and produce distributed energy for use in the home—and perhaps export some energy from the home to the grid, if it is not immediately used.

A substantial element, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree, is the contribution that will be possible in the future from generating programmes that are neither large energy nor domestically-based sources, but community-sized energy plants. The great advantage of community-sized energy plants, both in relation to wind farms and other forms of generation, is that, as my right hon. Friend says, they are owned, promoted and progressed by local communities, and those communities, ideally, receive the benefit not only of ownership of the community energy plant but of its output. Where possible, those community energy plants can be based on what might be called a private wire system, whereby on a community basis the output of the plant overrides national grid input and provides the community with power at local level. The advantage of that, as has been mentioned in the debate, relates to the losses that occur with big power. I see that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has the very informative Department of Trade and Industry multicoloured chart before him, which sets out exactly the losses that occur in conventional power stations between fuel in and power out. I believe that the figure is something like 63 or 64 per cent. in conventional power stations, and that a further 6 to 7 per cent. is lost in transmission from those power stations to the home.

A very large percentage of the fuel going in to what might be called traditional big power is lost even before it has reached the transmission cables; there is certainly also a loss in the transmission cables. That is not so for community energy. The power is produced locally. In the case of wind farms, 100 per cent. of the fuel in is converted to power out. Other forms of local generation are not quite as efficient, but local combined heat and power generation can be 70 to 80 per cent. effective with respect to those inputs and outputs. The distribution losses are also avoided.

I have an interest to declare, because I am an unpaid director of a community energy company in Southampton, Solent Sustainable Energy Ltd., which will be providing combined heat and power. It will
12 July 2006 : Column 446WH
serve more than 3,000 homes, as far as heating is concerned, and will provide electricity output, based on a community power station. There are different forms of community energy plant, including wind farms, power stations and other forms of community energy management. It is interesting to see that where such principles have been applied on a widespread basis, through the use of plants of the type I have mentioned in public and buildings and elsewhere, in the borough of Woking, a reduction of about 77 per cent. in carbon dioxide emissions has been achieved.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Simply out of curiosity, I wonder whether the combined heat and power project that the hon. Gentleman is involved in is powered by gas. What does he estimate to be the improvements in efficiency and lower carbon emissions?

Dr. Whitehead: The proposal is that the plant will be renewable oil-fired, using either rapeseed oil or sustainable palm oil—bio-oil—and will therefore be effectively carbon neutral. That underlines the point that I want to make, which is that some community energy plants, whether they use wind, biomass or biofuel, have two advantages. First, they are effectively carbon neutral, and, secondly, they offset all the losses that are well documented from the way in which big power transmits the fuel that it uses into the homes that it powers.

There is a substantial future for community-level energy plants. I take note of the proposals in the energy review about the renewables obligation. I hope that the banding arrangements suggested in the review will take into account the banding that would be advantageous to the development of such community energy plants. In the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 there is a substantial element of additional encouragement for the development of community energy plants, and the future therefore seems bright for community ownership and development of such plants. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) that that should, of course, be done on the basis of proper consultation and planning arrangements, and that certain forms of energy are not always appropriate in all circumstances or in all locations. However, the fundamental point is right: given that caveat, community energy can play a substantial role in the energy mix and, indeed, in making the energy future as close to carbon neutral as we can.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman may I give Members some guidance? It is an important debate and I should like the Minister to have adequate time to reply at length and in detail to the points raised on both sides of the Chamber. Her Majesty’s Opposition spokesman has told me that he does not intend to take the full time allocated to him, and I hope that the Liberal Democrat spokesman will similarly use his discretion so that we can have a full response.

10.28 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I shall endeavour to use fewer than my 10 minutes, Sir Nicholas, but I have important questions for the Minister. I congratulate
12 July 2006 : Column 447WH
the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), not only on securing the debate but on his eloquent and passionate advocacy of wind power and on the community and co-operative principle of involvement in wind-powered generation in particular. I also congratulate his hon. Friends on their equally eloquent and passionate speeches. I particularly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for the formidable example that he sets to the new Minister, by his record and his commitment to renewable energy.

One of the most important points made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth was that wind energy is not always equivalent to large-scale wind farms, and that household microgeneration and small-scale community generation are enormously important. He paid tribute in particular to community and co-operatively owned initiatives. I join him in celebrating them; the potential of the co-operative principle is generally neglected in our society, but its application is valuable in wind energy, and also in biofuels and solar power. I know of examples of a community-based approach delivering small-scale energy generation, which, as has been mentioned, is enormously more efficient than energy generation based in large-scale power stations.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) is, I think, in something of a minority in his approach, which seemed not so much nimbyist as showing a psychological aversion to wind power. The Tyndall centre recently quoted a poll as showing strong public support for wind power running at 81 per cent. Of the remaining 19 per cent., 14 per cent. still slightly support wind power. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman falls into the “strongly against” category, which is 1 per cent. of the population, so he is in a small minority.

I also disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the aesthetics of wind turbines. Last year I was the guest of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) in his constituency, where we admired the beautiful offshore wind turbines. Going to the lengths of criticising wind turbines on—to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase—open seascape is taking nimbyism to the extreme.

Mr. David Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there are no seascapes in this country that ought to be protected?

Alun Michael: Of course not.

Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman took the words right out of my mouth. However, where appropriate wind turbines can be an attractive addition to the landscape. I would happily see more of them in Gloucestershire and am happy to go on the record as saying that. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West said that tidal power was less intrusive. It is true that all renewable energy must be approached sensitively, but I suspect that a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary might be a lot more intrusive than wind turbines in the local area.

There are issues with wind power. On a large scale, community consent is overwhelmingly the most important issue. The onus is on companies that are developing wind power and large-scale wind farms not to attempt to ride roughshod over local feelings, but to
12 July 2006 : Column 448WH
consult and involve local people wherever possible. As the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said, however, we now have an opportunity to move beyond consultation and into involvement, and to see a policy shift that supports and empowers community ownership and involvement in smaller-scale generation. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) mentioned the good example of Woking district council, where a partly community-owned company has been instrumental in achieving a radical shift in the reduction of CO2 emissions.

There are concerns about small-scale generation too. I note that even the Energy Saving Trust has sounded a few alarm bells, particularly about the performance and reliability of some of the products that are being rushed to market. Kirk Archibald of the trust is quoted in The Observer on 25 June as saying:

The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has rightly contributed to that a little bit, but we could face a situation in which wind turbines are rolled out but do not work. One consultant is quoted in the same article as saying:

That is a cause for concern, because we want microgeneration but we want it to be as efficient as the manufacturers claim. We want the same regulation that applies to solar panels to be as tough on wind turbine manufacturers, so that they do not exploit people’s good intentions.

More worrying is a warning about the lateral thrust of turbines, which, as I am sure hon. Members know, threatens any large chimney. Indeed, it is said that a Victorian chimney stack in a high wind would be more than sufficient to topple a turbine. The right hon. Gentleman might want to check that the lateral thrust on his wind turbine is not going to topple his Victorian chimney. If his neighbours are upset now, they will be even more upset if that happens.

There are obstacles to be tackled and overcome, but climate change is on a wholly different scale. It fundamentally threatens our way of life and our economy, and the welfare and well-being not only of ourselves but of people in many parts of the world. It is important that the Government continue their commitment to renewable energy.

I welcomed many of the things in the Government’s energy review yesterday, such as the increase in the renewable obligations certificates, although there are questions. I probably do not have time to discuss the matter fully now, bearing in mind your remarks, Sir Nicholas, but the British Wind Energy Association and others have expressed concern that in supporting other renewables through the renewable obligation we should not undermine support for onshore wind, simply because the others become more economic in the process.

Other areas of policy that can support wind energy also need to be addressed, but as far as I can see they have not been addressed in the energy review. One is the code for sustainable buildings, which currently does not
12 July 2006 : Column 449WH
support microgeneration explicitly and which is not even compulsory in the energy efficiency measures that it supports. I would like the code to become compulsory for new buildings and for an element of compulsion to be included in microgeneration, so that perhaps all new buildings could contribute to it.

Last October, the Government’s chief scientist called for support to be given for hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is one way in which wind power might contribute to the energy of the country without the problems of intermittence to which the hon. Member for Clwyd, West referred. The Government’s chief scientist was quoted as saying that Government bodies, industry, academia and other interests must work much closer together to push the technology into the mass market. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments on the progress that is being made with that.

There is the issue of grants for microgeneration. In parliamentary answers to me, the Minister said that the “Clear skies” programme ran for more than three years and had a budget of £13.25 million for household microgeneration. Unfortunately, however, the household element of the new low-carbon buildings fund—which covers more than households—amounts to only £6.5 million over three years. That sounds like a halving of the budget for grants for household microgeneration, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification on that.

There is also the issue of nuclear power. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test implied—but perhaps did not spell out—the mere idea of supporting the large-scale new development of nuclear power runs counter to the idea of a decentralised and more efficient energy generation system. More localised and distributed generation will be more efficient, but the Government’s policy towards nuclear might undermine support for community generation.

There are many positives to be taken, however. I absolutely applaud the remarks that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth made about community and co-operatively-owned wind generation. I hope that the Minister will take those remarks on board, but there are other policy questions to be asked as well.

10.38 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): All of us offer our thanks to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) for initiating this debate, in which I hope there can be a lot of cross-party agreement about what we are trying to achieve for our country and for our planet.

Renewable energy technology is vital to the low-carbon energy future that we must achieve. Onshore wind is currently the most economically viable renewable in the UK market and provides more than 2 per cent. of our national electricity demand—the most of any single renewable technology—yet many other technologies and carbon-neutral approaches are being neglected in comparison. Wave technology has shown great potential, growth in photovoltaic cells is faster than ever before, geothermal boreholes have the potential to decrease household energy consumption
12 July 2006 : Column 450WH
by up to 60 per cent. and we all know the list of other options, such as biomass, tidal and offshore wind.

Yesterday the Government launched their energy review. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on having behind him a worthy and hard-working civil service team, without which I imagine that his efforts would perhaps have been as desperate as ours—I have had to manage with one person and the office cat. We all need to reflect on the stalwart qualities of the British Governmental apparatus in doing all that hard work.

We are delighted that the Government have agreed with us and appreciated the need to reform the renewables obligation, because that instrument is important in promoting a wide range of renewable sources. We welcome political consensus on this proposal.

In 1997, the Prime Minister promised to put the environment at the top of the agenda, but since then we have had nine years, six energy Ministers, three energy reviews and our carbon emissions have increased. I am told—it is worth checking—that we have the lowest level of renewable power in Europe, except for Malta. Britain cannot be proud of that track record.

We want action across the political divide. Our policy is to try to spark a green revolution, but we need to consider the regime of incentives governing this sector. We want a long-term carbon-pricing regime, which will give incentives for all forms of renewable technology so they can compete against traditional fossil fuels and thereby flourish. We need reform of the renewables obligation to create the required incentives for renewable energy generally.

Wind is only one of a number of technologies that we need to help us target carbon. The Carbon Trust published a report on Monday that damned the current renewables obligation; it said:

Next Section Index Home Page