Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  380.  Is it not Government's responsibility to put that to people?
  (Brian Wilson) I think it is Government's responsibility, yes.

  381.  And it is right, it is not, because, certainly from my perspective, Government has not been doing that to date?
  (Brian Wilson) I think that is right. But I think that is partly due to the fact that there has not been the mass of projects that really you could call a movement as opposed to a series of individual projects.

Mr Francois

  382.  I would just like to ask quickly about the numbers that we were quoted. We could obviously forecast these things reasonably accurately if we know for a fact that 2.8 per cent of our energy came from renewables in the year 2000. Most of that was hydro and we inherited that. A lot of it goes back almost to the Second World War. Hydro is vulnerable to a dry year, as you were saying yourself. So we had a dry year last year: what actually was the final outturn percentage for 2001?
  (Brian Wilson) I do not think we will have that figure until the Summer, but we will certainly get it to you by the Summer.

  383. The suggestion is, from what you were saying about it being a dry year last year, we could actually have gone backwards, could we not?
  (Brian Wilson) I do not think it is likely, but I do not think it is inconceivable. Certainly I am not saying there has been some great leap forward in the past couple of years. Hopefully, what I believe now is that building blocks have been put in place which will allow for the great leap forward, subject to the caveats I mentioned.

  384.  The great leap forward was a phrase Chairman Mao liked to use a lot. For 2001, either we went backwards or we were much the same or very fractionally ahead, and we have got to get to 10 per cent by 2010. One of the major barriers you face is planning; in getting planning consent in order to do this. It was not quite clear from the Memorandum that was submitted to us whether the DTI really had now created, as it were, a one-stop shop for planning consents relating to these matters. Can you actually clarify to the Committee exactly what the position is?
  (Brian Wilson) Planning of course is not within the gift of the DTI alone, or indeed primarily with DTI. Obviously we have a strong interest in consultation on planning law, which the DTLR is conducting at the present time. One of the keys to a higher success rate is the change in planning law which allows for the transportability of projects, in other words, that they are not tied to the one location: if they cannot find approval in one location then they can be moved to another. That was introduced latterly in terms of the NFFO and has also been introduced in Scotland. It is not within our gift, but we have a very strong interest in ensuring that Government policy on planning, while safeguarding peoples' legitimate right to object, is moved in that direction.

  385.  The DTI commissioned, I think, regional assessments, and also some work with devolved administrations for how much they thought they could accommodate in each of their reasons. Are you now suggesting that that forms a formal basis for trying to achieve these targets, the spreading around the United Kingdom?
  (Brian Wilson) I think maybe we are at slightly cross purposes here. That kind of planning is very much DTI driven, and, as you say, we now have proposed regional targets throughout the UK, and these targets are not being entered into lightly. There was an extensive consultation with stakeholders, including the Regional Development Agencies, to see what was realistic. These assessments have now been published and they are available. Oxera was involved in the preparation of them and everybody has essentially signed up to these assessments. I know from going round the country that they are already seen as very valuable tools in setting figures which are attainable and which should be aimed for on a regional basis.

  386.  I can see colleagues are itching to get on this, but can I just ask you a bit more first: were these methodologies and assessments carried out consistently, because they have come up with some quite quirky results? For instance, most of the hydro we have at the moment is in Scotland, but according to the results of the assessments, we are going to do better for renewable energy in East Anglia than we are in Scotland. In East Anglia we have barely anything if the largest wind farm in England is 16 turbines spread between Devon and Cornwall. How can you actually say that these assessments have any validity when we are suggesting we are going to have more than Norfolk and Suffolk and the rest of the East Anglian region than we are going to have in the whole of Scotland? The other point is, so far, if you look at the success of planning applications, some 66 per cent or better get through in Scotland to date, whereas in England and Wales, the corresponding figure is about 6 per cent. Again, according to the figures, we are going to do better in East Anglia, but we have a one in ten approval rate in East Anglia compared to Scotland, and Scotland starts off with nearly all the renewables that we have and we have 8 years left.
  (Brian Wilson) It is not as quirky as it sounds. That is the first reassurance I will give you.

  387.  We are intrigued.
  (Brian Wilson) I do not think we are saying there will be more renewables in East Anglia than in Scotland, but I am quite happy to come back to you on that point. I think the factor that maybe you have not taken account of in your scepticism of these figures is offshore wind. For instance, just last week I announced the approval for the first commercial scale offshore wind development at Scroby Sands in East Anglia. That development on its own will account for 100MW of electricity, so we know a small number of large offshore wind projects can actually transform this situation. Before you come back, usually I get in first to pay tribute to the visionaries who put hydro electricity in place. I am delighted to acknowledge that. I think it is a sobering reminder that the fact we have 2.8 per cent is due to nothing that has been done in this decade or the last decade, or indeed the decade before that in to what was done by people with the vision of Tom Johnson in the 1940s and then in the 1950s. Sadly, an end was put to it by an unholy conspiracy of landowners and environmentalists, but maybe we can come back to that later as well.

  388.  One more question. As I understand it, in Scotland they produce Revised Planning Guidelines and Policy Guidance Notes which actually gave those who wanted to invest in those technologies a much clearer idea of that which was likely to be accepted and that which was not. That is not necessarily exactly the same in England, or, if they are, the Guidelines do not appear to be working as well. You have a ten to one disparity in planning approvals between Scotland and England; how are you going to get around that?
  (Brian Wilson) We are revising the Guidance and take very much in line what has happened in Scotland. What has happened until now is that if a project was tied to one site and a campaign was successfully mounted against that site, then the project had nowhere to go. The essential thing is that the project has a life beyond one site. If you do that, then you certainly improve the success rate, although ultimately I do not think you are going to improve it enough unless you also get the change in public attitude.

  389.  What is the timing on the revision of the Guidelines?
  (John Doddrell) I am hoping that they will be revised over the Summer. DTLR are leading on this. We are working closely with them to make sure that they are much more conducive to the development of renewables. I would hope that good progress will have been made by the Summer.

Mr Savidge

  390.  Initially, if I can follow up from Mark Francois's points. Given that despite the story in today's Times, Scotland has been doing rather better with planning than has been occurring in England and Wales. They mentioned a number of things: they mentioned having easier planning guidelines; they mentioned giving technical advice; they mentioned producing public consultations that showed people actually found that wind farms were much more friendly neighbours than they had originally expected, being silent, and actually creating much less visual impact than expected. They talked about various things like that, plus bringing in flexibilities to try to deal with people's objections. I was wondering whether, in consultation with relevant Ministers from other departments, there would be an attempt to try and perhaps learn from the Scottish experience as far as England and Wales is concerned?
  (Brian Wilson) Absolutely. If I heaven forfend, was still involved in the West Highland Free Press I would be very grateful for the free publicity from Mr Murdoch. But I suppose the lesson to learn in this case is not to try to build a wind farm beside Sir Jeremy Isaacs's holiday home. Sadly, unemployed citizens in Skye do not have the same access to half a page of the Times to argue their case. I think the main lesson is in terms of planning, and, as I say, the transportability of projects. I do not think the differences are that great otherwise. Obviously there are more locations in Scotland which are less visible and that must be a factor in the relative number of projects, but in the Energy Department as a whole there is very close coordination with the Scottish Executive, and I think that we can learn from one another in that experience. When I was in the Scottish Office I used to have responsibility for what was then called the Scottish Renewables Obligation and I think the statistics show that we made a lot of progress just by making it more flexible.

  391.  You have already mentioned offshore wind, and obviously it can have the colossal advantage of being less likely to get planning objections. Obviously it has greater costs. I was wondering to what extent you felt that the offshore technologies that have been developed for oil could give us a lead position, perhaps in being able to produce offshore wind energy at greater depths than other countries are experimenting with at present, and whether that could in turn give us something which would not only create a situation where Scotland—which I think has potentially about 23 per cent of the whole of the European Union's potential for wind resource—it could give us the potential not only for Scotland to provide energy to the rest of Britain, but for the British technology that could be developed there to be something that could perhaps be exported to other countries?
  (Brian Wilson) I think there is tremendous synergy between the oil and gas industry and offshore renewables in general, and certainly there is very exciting work going on just now in offshore wind. It is not exclusive to Scotland by any means. I visited a very admirable initiative in Blyth in Northumberland a couple of weeks ago and the aspiration there is to make Blyth, with its largely redundant coal harbour—it has an excellent infrastructure for all sorts of renewable technology developments and it already has offshore wind turbines which are both commercial and also demonstration in purpose, and that kind of work is going very, very well. There is a big read across between the companies that are involved in the North Sea and companies which are getting involved in offshore wind. We can do a great deal there, and, as you know, we have based Renewables UK in Aberdeen specifically in order to take advantage of the synergies between oil and gas and renewables.

  392.  How far do you think that the possibility of being able to work in slightly greater depths could mean, that not only on the West Coast of the country, but possibly the North and East, we could also develop wind resources, and to what extent do you think would be opportunities for combining wind farm resources with tidal energy, given that one could use the same infrastructure and one could use the same cable connectors to bring the energy ashore?
  (Brian Wilson) Tidal energy has been around like all of these things for a long time, but without enormous progress being made in the commercial application, and it would be rash for me to say that one particular design or one particular technology linked to wind technology is going to be a great contributor. As I said in the outset, Government is not going around saying, "We know the technologies that are going to work". What we have to do is to stimulate as much activity as possible to encourage as much R&D work and innovation as possible and some of these designs and technologies are going to come through. Again, when I was in the North East of England recently, I was talking to a company which is going to put a very interesting tidal device in the water, is going to build it at Gateshead and is going to test it in Shetland during the Summer. There are interesting projects involving tidal power going on, but the precise interrelationship with wind power I will leave to the technologists.

Mr Owen Jones

  393.  Just to take you back to a question Mr Francois asked about the DTI sponsored report on the Regional Contributions to Renewables. That report was very welcome in that there was an obvious need which, for some reason, had not been met for the various parts of the United Kingdom to suggest what they are going to do, and also it is welcome because it obviously gives a degree of ownership to those areas to decide. However, there was an obvious lack of any cohesive agreed standards by which different areas would draw up their reports. Mr Francois referred to East Anglia's ambitions. They were ambitions from the South West to produce a very large amount of their energy from biomass, although the figures that we have seen suggest that biomass is not likely to become terribly economic in the short term. I wondered, perhaps cynically, whether it had something to do with the importance of the farming lobby in the South West, but would you not agree there is a need to have an agreed system which applies to how the various regions work out what they can do? Even more importantly than that, what they contribute must be related to the capacity they have to contribute and to the proximity of demand, exciting though the projects that may be in Scotland, the proximity of demand and the capacity to produce must be key elements?
  (Brian Wilson) The capacity to produce is obviously a key element and the proximity of demand is highly relevant. I am anxious not to be led entirely down that route or else you end up saying that you have to produce where the market is and that would be a major inhibitor, not just in Scotland, but in other more peripheral parts of the UK where there is tremendous potential for renewables. I also think that in setting targets and the mix of how these targets are to be obtained, it is right and proper to take account of local views. As I say, the RDAs were very much involved in drawing up these targets, and if they think that biomass is the horse to bet on in their particular area, and that there are good economic reasons for doing that and good natural resource reasons for doing that, then I am not going to argue with that. Biomass in this country is at a very early stage. I visited successful biomass power plants using materials as diverse as chicken manure and straw and they operate very well, so if the South West can feed the demand and bring benefit to the rural community at the same time, then I think that is a call for the South West to make.

  394.  Is the South West going to have any capacity to subsidise their own production then, because if it is uneconomic in comparison to other forms of production, there has to be a subsidy from somewhere?
  (Brian Wilson) The subsidy comes through the Renewables Obligation. Anyone who is into generation from renewables knows what they are going to get from the Renewables Obligation and they have 25 years' security to get it, so that is an economic call which they have to make.

Sue Doughty

  395.  We have been hearing quite a lot about barriers to making progress, and it has not really been a very happy story up to now. Lots of aspirations and very little progress at all. In the report, I think some bits—other bits have been quite controversial, talk about nuclear power—but the one bit where everybody is agreeing is about energy efficiency and the targets have been welcomed all around. People look forward to meeting those targets, but when we were talking with the PIU this morning, there was clearly some concern about whether we are actually going to meet those targets for energy efficiency; whether we are actually putting things in place. The comment that has generally been made is that progress was not as fast as the Government might have wished and yet this is actually something which is in the Government's hands to deliver on. Domestic energy efficiency, a lot of things they could put in train if they were minded to do to meet those targets, and yet that seems to have got sucked into what—I understand that you want to see the big picture and get the whole of the elements in place, but given the difficulties of getting the renewables so that they really deliver, we seem to be missing a quick win here somewhere along the line.
  (Brian Wilson) I am not sure it is a quick win. I believe it is a massive win if we can achieve it. From my perspective, I think one of the great successes so far of the Energy Review was to move energy efficiency so far up the agenda and to give it a real priority as one of the ways that we are going to meet our other obligations in the years and decades ahead. I can assure you that that is being taken extremely seriously and without waiting for White Papers or anything else, there is a lot of work being done on moving that forward. Only last week I had a meeting with the Utilities to encourage what they are doing on energy saving measures and campaigns and strategies. It is a very big plank of Government policy and again it is cross-Government in a sense; it is very much involved with both the DTI and DEFRA.

  396.  Yes, it tells you of fuel poverty, but I just have that feeling that we are not even confident about meeting our first 20 per cent target. From what you are saying, you sound rather more confident than I am that that is going to be achieved?
  (Brian Wilson) I tend to err on the conservative side in making rash promises and setting rash targets, and, therefore, when I say it, I am saying it with the enthusiasm of someone who believes it can be done, but again, I do not have any doubts that it is going to involve a lot of work and commitment and a far higher profile than it has had in the past. I would have to say that exhortation has not proved a tremendously effective mechanism, particularly in terms of the domestic consumer, so it has to be made easier for the domestic consumer, it has to be brought before them that by taking some pretty basic steps and spending very little money, we can both get lower electricity bills and also have warmer homes, and I think we have to look at all the kinds of schemes that are going on around the country and find the most effective way of getting this message across, putting the weight of Government behind it. That is exactly what I was talking to the Utilities about last week.

  397.  And you think that is going to be achievable there, then?
  (Brian Wilson) I think it is achievable, but I think again there is a big hearts and minds campaign to be engaged in. In exactly the same way as with renewable energy, the biggest help to that campaign would be if people understood and were enthused by the objectives of it, that it was not just a case of them being told to do something, but actually they believed in what they were doing because they realised the contribution it was making to things which in general and in principle they do subscribe to.

  398.  Because so many of these things, for example, biomass ties in with the revival of the rural economy and yet we are waiting there. Some farmers say, "Well, it is a 5 year turnaround if I am growing willow for biomass before I start seeing a penny coming back". They want confidence, and so we have that tie in with agriculture. The tie in here with fuel poverty is very important. Are we actually talking with people like the Ministry of Health and making sure that all those objectives are being met at the same time?
  (Brian Wilson) I believe that it is very important to link all of that together, but specifically on energy efficiency, I assure you there is a lot of work going on. There is an Advisory Group now operating and there is a cross Government approach to this. I promise you that you will see a higher profile certainly from my own department being given to this, and I am sure also from DEFRA than has been the case in the past.

  Sue Doughty: Thank you Minister.

Mr Wright

  399.  You talked already today about the Government not wanting to pick winners in terms of new technologies. Would it not be true to say, however, that really because the way the Renewables Obligation is structured, wind power is going to be the only winner in the long term, and secondly, because of the way you are allocating grants, for example, your grants support and assistance on other technologies such as wave power has been much lower than for other technologies. Wind power is going to be the only option in the long term, is it not, so why are we not backing that forcefully now? Why are you leaving the options open?
  (Brian Wilson) Wind power is ahead of the game just now in uptake, and in people bringing forward schemes, because it probably is the most developed of the renewable technologies, not just nationally but also internationally. It has been around for a long time in this country. As I never tire of pointing out, we had the lead in wind power more than 20 years ago and did very little with it, but there has been a wind industry in this country which has developed slowly during that period. There are companies very active in it, at home and abroad. So you are not starting from scratch in the same way as we are, effectively, in some of the other technologies. I certainly do not think it means we should neglect other technologies and I do not think that in the longer term it means that wind is necessarily going to be the dominant contributor. Indeed, just to go back to the previous point, wind is not the dominant contributor because hydro electricity is the dominant contributor. One of the first things which I was very happy to do in this job was to bring hydro electricity within the Renewables Obligation and that has already led to a 250 million refurbishment of existing hydro electric schemes. I would like to see new hydro electric schemes being developed, so hydro is still going to be bigger than wind for a while to come. My own personal enthusiasm, if you like, is wave power. I think there is tremendous potential in wave power, but again I have had an interest in this long before I was doing this job. I go back to remembering things that—I seem to have been hearing about Salter's ducks since I was in primary school, but Salter's ducks have still conspicuously failed to produce electricity for the grid. So we have to get beyond the developmental stage and into the implementation stage.


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