Future of Energy in Wales

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Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that, with regard to wind turbines, while neither of us is opposed to them in principle, mid-Wales has been over-farmed for wind in practice. It is a source of disappointment to me that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham gave no indication whatsoever that a Conservative Government would take a more sympathetic view to the objectors in our constituencies than the current Administration.
Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but he has also got to remember that technical advice note 8 is in now in existence, and certain areas have been designated as suitable for wind power. I was very critical of how the TAN8 measure was brought in, because I thought it was undemocratic, in the sense that people who wanted to object to it did not have the advantage of a public inquiry, whereas most planning projects are subject to an inquiry process. It is getting a bit like some of the measures in the new Planning Bill.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman noticed, as I have, that most of the strategic search areas identified in TAN8 happen to be on Forestry Commission land? Has he also noticed that the recipient of rents for Forestry Commission lands happens to be the Welsh Assembly Government?
Mr. Williams: I had not noticed that, but when I go back to my office and look at the TAN8 maps, perhaps I will be able to agree with him. I am not quite sure what point he is making.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): A conflict of interest.
Mr. Williams: Okay.
While TAN8 has identified areas where wind farms are thought to be acceptable and efficient, so many applications are now being made for particular areas that the planning authorities should be able to look at the cumulative effect as well. The fact that an area has been designated for wind farms does not mean that the whole of that area should be or needs to be covered with them. The planning authorities need to be given the powers to look at the effect not just of a particular application, but of many applications together. That is going to be very important if the public are to have confidence in the planning process.
Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman also share the concern of the Ministry of Defence, which on some applications has expressed concern about the wind turbines having an impact on and negatively affecting radar? Given the importance of MOD personnel to Wales, and the border counties in particular, it is a voice we should heed.
Mr. Williams: When the first maps regarding TAN8 came out, many of us expected the area around Abergwesyn in my constituency to be one of those indicated as suitable for wind farm developments, because certain proposals had been floating around. Abergwesyn is forestry land, so perhaps it was looked at very carefully. I have been told that the reason it was not included, however, is that the RAF objected to it: it is one of the areas in which it carries out its training. So people in the area have the problem of low-flying aircraft, but they been spared the threats of wind power.
Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend will be aware of the enormous disruption generated by the construction of wind turbines in local communities. Is he also aware that literally thousands of lorry loads of materials are scheduled to pass through the small town of Montgomery, and the people there are extremely concerned? Unfortunately, when we look at the environmental impact of turbines, those extraneous problems seem not to be taken into account. We should really raise them and object to them too.
Mr. Williams: I am sure that is one of the issues that the planning committees will take into account, or the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, depending on the size of the application. If it is over 50 MW, it will be determined in Westminster, just as the Cefn Croes application was without, as I understand it, the Minister leaving his desk.
Interesting pieces of information come out eventually. I cannot say for certain that this is true—
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Say it anyway.
Mr. Williams: I will. It has been suggested that in drawing up TAN8, the Welsh Assembly did not consult the trunk road agencies, nor the local authorities’ highways departments, and for that reason some of the constraints that would have been identified at an early stage in the construction phase of the development were probably overlooked.
Wales has the opportunity to be a world leader in green technology. We can see that we have those opportunities. I could speak for longer on wind farms, although I think that we have covered the subject well. I hope that they are now going to be concentrated in the TAN8 area, because the pepper-pot effect of having small wind farms over the whole of Wales would be a disaster. We have seen how the coal industry devastated south Wales for so many years. It has taken us so long to get those valleys back to their former beauty. I hope that our wind farms do not have the same effect on the rest of Wales. We have the opportunities, but we must use common sense.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I am an opponent of the TAN8 idea of concentrating in relatively small areas, because it leads to local opposition when we get to saturation point. Surely the advantage of renewable energy is that it can be decentralised—it can be spread—and it is about local self-reliance as much as possible, through local generation of electricity. Should it not be spread evenly throughout Wales?
Mr. Williams: That is an interesting point. I would advocate communities having their own generation systems. That is to be encouraged. However, to have large turbines—some are very large—but perhaps only three or four in diffuse areas is not the right way forward. One gets huge energy losses getting them back into the grid.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I want genuine clarification. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing for TAN8—leave the wind farms where they are now, in the TAN8 area, regrettable as it is—or against it. There are significant ramifications on the ground to consider, not only for the south Wales valleys, but for mid-Wales and other areas that are designated as TAN8, Forestry Commission or whatever. So that the Committee is clear, will he clarify what the Liberal Democrat policy is on this?
Mr. Williams: We are where we are. We have TAN8. If an application comes within TAN8, whatever we think about it or whatever we think of the landscape implications, there is no point objecting on those grounds.
Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman may not be able to answer the specific example put to him by the Minister. However, on the general principle of inshore wind farms, what is the Liberal Democrat position? Is the party for them or against them? That is quite clear.
Mr. Williams rose—
The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers the question, I remind the Committee that the debate is limited in time until 4 o’clock. Members may wish to hear the Minister wind up, but if they keep intervening on the speaker, I will not have time to call everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak.
Mr. Williams: Thank you, Mr. Atkinson.
To sum up, the thrust of our policy on all such matters is that we are in favour of sustainable energy. However, we have to ensure that it occurs where it does least damage to the environment and the landscape and where it is of most benefit to the community.
2.24 pm
Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and I congratulate him on his thoughtful contribution. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the important initiative of developing the Welsh Grand Committee to focus on specific policy areas. I am especially pleased that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham also welcomed that development.
I was particularly impressed with the Energy Minister’s contribution, especially his comments on fairness and justice. He talked about “empowered citizens”. Might I respectfully suggest that we can have empowered citizens only if we have informed citizens? That will be my theme this afternoon.
As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am pleased that we are discussing energy because we had two very important inquiries into energy in 2005-06 and 2007, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West on proposing an energy inquiry. Their full significance was outlined at the beginning of our first report, a short part of which I shall quote. It states:
“Our inquiry is a timely and important contribution to the Energy debate and provides a context for the analysis and evaluation of the implications of the UK Government’s Energy Review for Wales. Given its position as a net exporter of energy, with an abundance of natural resources, Wales faces a unique opportunity to continue to play a vital role in the United Kingdom’s energy supply. In particular, it has the potential to develop and establish a leading indigenous, clean energy industry in the United Kingdom. The careful development and management of those natural resources could help to address the current energy dilemmas facing the United Kingdom, not least in providing clean, safe, secure, reliable and efficient sources of energy.”
That is how the report began. I would like to acknowledge on the record the contribution of all members of the Committee, and their diligence and knowledge of energy, particularly in their own constituencies. While it is invidious to single out one person, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn was especially assiduous in explaining the importance of nuclear energy.
It is not my intention today to talk about the recommendations—after all, there were 58 in the report—but to address the importance of public information, public debate, public education and, perhaps most important, public consultation in Wales about the twin challenges of security of supply and climate change, made all the more urgent by the rapid rise in world oil prices. I emphasise the Energy Minister’s point about the importance of fairness and justice in dealing with those subjects. I am fond of quoting Francis Bacon’s dictum, which appears on the Penrhiwceibr miners’ lodge banner, “Knowledge is power”. Of course, there are several meanings to that in this context, and it is apposite to reflect on that.
With that in mind, I believe that our two inquiries performed an important public education and public information role in raising awareness of energy matters in Wales. The reports outlined the wealth and diversity of energy potential in Wales and more than hinted at the need for a more rational and co-ordinated Government approach to its exploitation. The reports looked at coal, nuclear, liquefied natural gas, wind energy, wave and tidal power, including the Severn barrage, biomass, solar energy, photovoltaics, geothermal energy, hydro-electric power and microgeneration. They were all examined in considerable detail, so much so that we visited most of the sites, from Wylfa in the north down to Tower colliery in the south, and also Denver and Chicago in the United States.
Given that diversity of provision, or potential provision, and the twin challenges of security of supply and climate change, there is surely a need for a rational, balanced and, above all, informed public debate in Wales. That is imperative and it would meet, in the words of the Minister for Energy, the requirements of fairness and justice.
In that context, we are blessed in Wales with two important research and development centres that focus on energy matters. We have already heard about the well established and well respected Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in mid-Wales. There is also the newer Welsh Energy Research Centre in south Wales. My Committee warmly commended the work of the Centre for Alternative Technology, especially that on microgeneration and various alternative technologies. We also called on the UK Government to give better funding for the centre’s Wales Institute for Sustainable Education project, which will launch a state-of-the-art environmental education centre in Machynlleth this summer.
The Welsh Energy Research Centre is in my south Wales constituency. In some respects, it is a virtual centre because it brings together research expertise from almost all the higher education institutions in Wales. Three years ago, I attended the impressive opening conference launched by Andrew Davies, the then Economic Development Minister of the Welsh Assembly. That centre, in bringing together research groups from all the leading higher education institutions in Wales, reflects how Wales is becoming a major energy centre in the UK—and, I would contend, internationally. Its role in facilitating rapid commercialisation and exploitation of research is invaluable to both the Welsh and the UK economies. To take its vital research work forward, the centre is working with the energy technium in Pembrokeshire and the sustainable technium in Baglan, which is also in my constituency. The centre not only plays a critical research and development role through its conferences and seminars, but performs a great public information role, which needs to be enhanced and encouraged. We need more public understanding of the global energy challenges, through such local initiatives as the conference that the centre plans for 27 June. It will be held in Swansea, with presentations on such diverse topics as smart meters, tidal stream mapping and coal gasification.
Welsh Assembly Ministers are well aware of the valuable contributions of the two centres. It is equally important, given that energy is a shared responsibility, for UK Ministers to familiarise themselves with their work. I urge representatives of the Wales Office and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to visit the centres at the earliest opportunity. As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I know that the centres would welcome ministerial visits.
If UK Ministers were to address seminars or conferences at those centres, public understanding of the energy challenges would significantly improve. They might then begin to correct some of the irrational policy decisions being made on matters such as wind energy, where excessive faith in wind farms is meeting much public opposition in mid-Wales and the south Wales valleys. I pay tribute to many of those groups. It is easy to dismiss them, and there was a tone in the discussion earlier that implied that perhaps those people are ill informed. My experience of many of those environmental and community groups is that they are extremely well informed, and we should respect them for that.
I end my remarks by reminding everyone that the Energy Minister’s aspiration is to achieve justice and fairness by empowering our citizens, and I contend that we empower them by informing them.
2.35 pm
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. It has done sterling work in its two reports on the energy sector in Wales, and no one knows better than the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) about the role that the shifting fortunes of global energy markets has played in the history of Wales. The collapse of the coal price in the middle of the 1920s shaped the course of Welsh history for a generation or two. The competition from cheap oil and gas in the 1980s and 1990s also wreaked havoc in many of our communities. Wales has been there before, and we are now in the middle of another global energy crisis, which most of us accept is most likely to get worse and affect almost every aspect of our lives.
If coal and petroleum drove the locomotive of history in the 20th century, it is the struggle to replace them and cope with the fallout from their use that will be the drama of the 21st century. Wales is not immune from that. However, it is important that we bear in mind the three distinguishing characteristics of where Wales lies in the energy landscape. I am obviously struggling to bring some new information into the debate, given that we have heard many hon. Members touch on the key aspects of the subject.
The three salient facts are, first, that we are net exporters of electricity; secondly, that we have the potential of vast, mostly untapped, renewable resources; and thirdly, and perhaps more controversially, that we are only partially authors of the future of energy in Wales and of our own destinies at the moment, because energy policy is only partially made in Wales.
We used to export coal, but we now export electricity. Indeed, we have been a net exporter of electricity to England since the 1960s. One of the Select Committee reports contained a reference to the power generation gap that some people are positing on the horizon in about 10 years’ time. The chief executive of Miller Argent referred to a 22 GW generation capacity power gap. He was, of course, referring to the United Kingdom. At present, there is no anticipated power generation gap in Wales for the medium to long term. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are net exporters of electricity. It is important to bear in mind that England is a net importer from two places: the European mainland and Wales.
According to the latest figures, Wales generates 8.8 per cent. of United Kingdom electricity. It is nice to see a figure not showing us in deficit, but in surplus. It is a Welsh natural competitive advantage and a strength of our economy. The figures show that it is on an increasing curve. Even the decommissioning of the twin-turbine 918 MW Wylfa nuclear power plant, which will cause a loss of about 7,000 GWh—about 20 per cent. of Wales’s current electricity generation—will be more than compensated by the new 800 MW gas-fired plant being built on the River Usk, by the massive 2,000 MW RWE plant in Pembroke, which was referred to earlier, and by the proposed ESB International 800 MW plant in Port Talbot, the biomass plant, and so on. That does not include other growth in the renewable sector.
We might not be the energy giant, the colossus that we were in the age of king coal, but we more than hold our own in energy and electricity generation, and we shall long into the future. From 2012, Wales will begin exporting electricity to Ireland for the first time with the construction of the new 1,000 MW interconnector cable between Deeside and Meath. We will be an international electricity exporter. Wales does not lack the basic infrastructure of electricity generation, and we should not fear large-scale outages—similar to the ones that we saw recently in England—other than on a localised basis, at least in the short to medium term.
The second point is about renewables. Obviously, the extent and composition of electricity generation is critical in terms of climate change. As Paul Allen of CAT said, in terms of renewable energy and latent potential, Wales could be the Saudi Arabia of Europe. The Welsh Assembly Government have adopted a target to have Wales generating all its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2025. That is currently the most ambitious renewable target adopted by any national Government anywhere in the world. Sweden has talked about breaking oil dependency by 2025, but the Welsh 100 per cent. renewables target is the most ambitious by that date.
Regrettably, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn is not in his place—we could have had a good old ding-dong—but I am glad that the Welsh Assembly Government have maintained their opposition to nuclear power. Certainly, that remains the policy of Plaid Cymru. Anglesey is clearly different, but that is the policy of Plaid Cymru and of the Labour-led Administration—I do not use that term very often, but I will in this context.
To digress for a second, I admit that that is the right decision. Probably the favourite model from those proposed is the European pressurised reactor, the EDF-owned model. EDF is having significant problems with the two EPRs that are currently being built. One is in Finland and has suffered repeated delays; it is now already two years late and double the original cost, which is concerning. The second one is in Flamanville in Normandy, where construction was stopped last month by the French nuclear safety agency, because of concerns similar to those in Finland about the construction of low-quality concrete reactor components. There are real concerns, and EDF is the only company in the bidding for British energy at the moment. We must caution against nuclear power being adopted as the policy response in Wales, when we clearly have so many other options.
Wind energy has already been referred to, and I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Aberavon. Communities can reach saturation point. I am in favour of onshore wind; it has an important part to play, but if it is seen as a panacea, the technology is overburdened and we get opposition, public reaction and the renewables agenda suffers. We must tread carefully and listen sensitively. When the number of wind farms in a given area rises above 10, for example, we start to see the industrialisation of the landscape. I am in favour of more decentralised developments and of not expecting small communities to share too big a burden.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I commend a visit to my constituency to my hon. Friend. If he goes to the village of Croesor, he will see a small stone shippen in which an electricity generating plant, run entirely by hydroelectric power, lights up 300 homes. It is near a natural lake in the valley, and no one would know that it is there. I would love to see that proliferated across Wales as part of the overall portfolio of clean energy.
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