Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 434)



  Q420  Dr Turner: The draft EU Directive would mean guaranteed access to the Grid for renewable generators and priority access for their output. How will that Directive, assuming that it is implemented, affect your plans for dealing with the Grid problems?

  Malcolm Wicks: We are reflecting on the issue about priority access; I do not think we are convinced by that. We need to look at that very carefully. It sounds attractive but, as we were discussing earlier with your colleague, we need to get the balances right here between base load energy and how we manage this new world, really, of quite a heavy reliance on wind energy and complications maybe with the Severn Barrage one day as well in terms of that, so I do not think we are going to commit ourselves at this stage to saying that is the right approach. It is slightly more difficult or technical.

  Q421  Dr Turner: So you will not implement the Directive?

  Malcolm Wicks: We are discussing it.

  Mr Virley: Negotiations are under way about what "priority access of renewables" means for the moment. It is a very detailed and technical area and we would expect those negotiations to continue for the best part of a year.

  Q422  Dr Iddon: With or without that Directive, in order to take the frustration out of the renewables industry where they are queuing to get access to the Grid, would it not be sensible if the Government, irrespective of that Directive, as I said, persuaded the current generators to share present capacity with the renewable generators?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am not sure I quite understand the question, sorry.

  Q423  Dr Iddon: As I understand it, the renewable readiness which is there now, 9.3 gigaWatts in Scotland, cannot get access because the current generators are taking full capacity on the Grid. Can we not persuade the current generators to share that capacity with the renewable generators?

  Mr Virley: There are complex issues there. We do have a market-based system and a system of connection that is managed by National Grid. They have published proposals for reprioritising the queue as it currently exists in Scotland, and we do expect those proposals to have some effect. Obviously it is a big concern for us to make sure renewables can have the access they need.

  Q424  Dr Iddon: Turning now to management of the Grid, when we have substantial amount of renewable capacity connected, people talk about intelligent management of the Grid and about demand-side management, which I do not think they have at the moment, at least not to cope with the large amount of renewable capacity coming in. What plans are there for better management of the Grid in future?

  Malcolm Wicks: As I said in answer to your previous question, we are working with National Grid at the moment about future scenarios where you could have a considerable amount of demand management and a considerable amount of heat/electricity storage on the system which could change the dynamic in terms of energy demand in this country. So that work in terms of long-term scenarios is under way with National Grid and Ofgem at the moment.

  Q425  Chairman: Just coming on to planning, Minister, which is a major issue, in evidence to the BERR Committee you stated that the National Policy Statement for energy would contain a list of offshore wind sites suitable for development. Will those sites be subject to environmental impact studies? How is that process going to work?

  Malcolm Wicks: They will be subject to environmental impact studies, they are now, and indeed in a way we draw a bit from the environmental assessments we made when giving licences for offshore oil and gas drilling, so the Department has quite a history of managing those environmental assessments and they will, of course, continue, yes.

  Q426  Chairman: So it will not just be left to the developers?

  Malcolm Wicks: No. We have expertise in the Department on that already.

  Q427  Chairman: Projects of less than 50 megaWatts will be decided by local authorities rather than the Infrastructure Planning Commission, that is the arrangement, yet 30-40% of the renewable electricity projects will fall below that threshold. Can you explain the reasoning behind the 50 megaWatts cut-off point?

  Malcolm Wicks: The Planning Bill and the new Independent Planning Commission is designed to tackle what has often been quite considerable delays in terms of very large scale infrastructure projects. I repeat what I said earlier, it is not just in the energy field, so I guess it comes down to a definition of what we mean by "large scale", what falls above the line and under the line, but the Department did not feel that every planning application should go to the new Independent Commission.

  Q428  Chairman: No, but the point I am making is that you mentioned earlier, and it was a staggering fact, that 18 gigaWatts of electricity is either within the planning system, most of it—220 wind farms are within the planning system—and yet we know, and we have heard from many witnesses we have spoken to, that in fact the local authority planning system is what is bogging down this whole process. They just cannot get them through the planning system at all, and yet this very significant 30-40% of what is proposed is going to depend on that. In other words, how on earth are you going to make progress if we are going to have the current system as simply a NIMBY system applying to many of these new applications?

  Malcolm Wicks: I could introduce you to some of your NIMBY colleagues on this, and I do not say that flippantly, of course, because I know many parliamentary colleagues who one day will make great speeches about the importance of climate and renewables and then in their own back yard, often perfectly properly, will be on the side of local residents campaigning against the wind farm. I have had many adjournment debates on that—and I will not say from which benches, Mr Willis, but you can guess. But I would not call it NIMBYism; I would say that perfectly properly there is local opinion about this, some for and some against, and on some of these larger projects, because at the moment they come to us, sometimes I have agreed with them going ahead but sometimes I have disagreed, and I would have thought that is what planning should be about. I hope that the planning statement on renewables, the fact we do training with planning inspectors to bring them up to scratch on these issues, will see more projects come to light, but I would not myself say we should remove this from the local authority and that local opinion should never have its say, otherwise the tide will turn against wind farms.

  Q429  Chairman: The point is that if you reduced it from 50 megaWatts to, say, 20 there would be a significant difference, would there not, where you have relatively small wind farms which, in fact, the local authority has every right to be involved with?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes.

  Q430  Chairman: These are big projects, the 50 megaWatts?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, but the IPC, the Independent Planning Commission, is set up to deal with very large scale, although obviously it is a matter of judgment where you draw the line.

  Q431  Dr Turner: There is a different issue for marine projects, not that there are water NIMBYs because it is much less of a problem, but the 50 megaWatt limit is an obvious problem, or will be for the next few years, because they are not at the state of development to deploy 50 megaWatts or more at a time, and you will be aware that a very significant percentage of the cost of the SeaGen project was attributable to the environmental impact study. It is just as intensive, takes just as long and costs just as much to produce a 1.2 megaWatt installation as it would if they were installing 50 or more megaWatts, so can I put it to you that the 50 megaWatt limit is not appropriate for marine installations? Would you be prepared to reconsider that?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am willing to put that question, that concern, to my colleagues in DCLG. I do not feel I have the expertise to comment on it except to say that the marine environment and the seas are becoming a crowded place, there are many different concerns and many different users of the sea, there are ecological issues and it is always a question of trying to weigh up and balance all of these factors, but I think it is perfectly appropriate that marine technology, like any other bit of kit in the sea, should be subject to an environmental assessment, but I will relay your concern to my colleagues in the other department.

  Q432  Chairman: Could we ask you to relay another couple of concerns, just going back to the on-land planning system? Planning policy Statement 22 is what gives the general policy advice to local authorities, yet we have heard, particularly from a company RWE Innogy, that different local authorities interpret that planning guidance in extreme ways. Now, surely it is a sensible move for the Government to say: "Let's give very clear guidance in terms of that particular policy statement"? Also would it not be possible for there to be a screening mechanism before local authorities consider applications, so that they are not, in fact, dealing with very speculative applications which bog the system down?

  Mr Virley: I think the National Policy Statements that the Minister mentioned earlier will be very important here in terms of setting the framework for local authorities, and then they will be translated into local and regional strategies, so that clear guidance will be coming in the form of the National Policy Statements.

  Q433  Chairman: When?

  Mr Virley: During the autumn of this year we will be consulting on the draft of the National Policy Statement for renewables.

  Q434  Chairman: We do have a small group of questions on skills but I would like to write to you on that matter, if we could. Thank you very much indeed for your presence this morning.

  Malcolm Wicks: It is nice to be back, Mr Willis.

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