The report contains the findings of an investigation of wind energy by the Welsh Affairs Committee which has no objection to development of further wind farms in Wales -- provided they are environmentally acceptable to local people. The Welsh Members of Parliament (MPs) on the committee conclude that wind energy could make a "significant contribution to national electricity needs." But they stress the importance of allowing decisions on new developments to rest with local communities "within the framework of a robust, appropriate and locally accountable planning system." Efforts by anti-wind lobby groups outside Wales to stop development there are considered an uninformed intrusion by the MPs, who emphasise several times that local interests should be given priority.
The wind industry has been eagerly awaiting the report, not only in Wales but throughout the UK. Wind proponents had feared that the claims of the anti-wind lobby -- presenting evidence to the committee -- might have misled the MPs into drawing a negative conclusion about wind. But their fears were unfounded.
The report looks in detail at a range of topics that have become clouded with exaggerated argument and counter argument. Explaining their aims, the MPs said they had attempted to cut through the exaggerations and the emotionally charged language and set out the issues clearly. The wind energy debate has become increasingly polarised and the committee's common-sense findings have provided a welcome relief. They have also demolished several myths perpetuated as an argument against wind development.
Wind energy's critics may still be smarting after the committee deplored the inaccuracies and misinformation in their arguments. In particular, two countryside bodies are singled out for heavy censure. The report picks holes in evidence from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW) and refutes its call for a moratorium on all developments in Wales saying that wind energy has shown itself to be a valuable renewable technology. "Any moratorium at this stage would be a serious dislocation to the industry." The report adds: "it does . . . seriously undermine the standing and reputation of the CPRW that it is prepared to base its policy on such exaggeration and misinformation."
However, even greater opprobrium is heaped on the government quango, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), which is financed by the Welsh Office. The MPs claim the CCW's casual approach to inaccuracies in its evidence to be "quite unacceptable" from a government funded organisation. They expose a number of errors in its evidence, among them the claim that 1993 NFFO subsidies to Welsh wind farms amounted to £20.25 million. The MPs call this figure a "complete fiction." The CCW repeated the argument put forward by many opponents of wind energy that conventional generating capacity is kept on call to compensate for the variability of wind energy. The MPs reject this robustly and make the point that each unit of wind generated electricity fully replaces a unit of electricity from fossil fuels, thus reducing pollution.
Other misconceptions which are common usage among opponents of wind are addressed by the report. Energy efficiency should not be seen as an alternative to renewable energy. "Both are important and each supports the other in the common objective of reducing atmospheric pollution and our dependence on non renewable energy sources." There are no problems with integrating an intermittent form of energy such as wind into the grid, affirms the report. Turning to generating over-capacity, it calls the argument that no more wind plant should be built until additional capacity is needed "impracticable," saying it ignores wind's global environmental benefits.
Although the committee's most scathing condemnation is of wind's opponents, the wind industry comes in for stinging criticism, too. The approach of developers has not always been sensitive -- sometimes giving the impression of riding roughshod over local concerns, says the report. It also claims that problems with noise have been caused mainly by the industry's lack of foresight.
Against lattice towers
Concerns over visual impact are the most deep-seated and firmly held objections to wind development, says the report. It adds that public acceptance of wind turbines will depend on their being sited sensitively and on being seen as a genuine contribution to clean and economic electricity, rather than as evidence of the greed of their developers. While acceptable in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, wind farms should be banned from National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and locally designated areas of great landscape value -- or even where they could be clearly seen from within these areas, the report advises. The committee is reluctant to set limits on the numbers of units for each site, believing each should be assessed on a case by case basis.
The report comes down against lattice towers, saying that in large numbers they give a more cluttered appearance in the landscape than tubular towers and have been linked with increased bird deaths.
On planning issues, the MPs emphasise that decisions should be firmly in the hands of the local community. They draw attention to the shortcomings of existing central government advice for planners on wind farm issues contained in the Planning Policy Guidance Note on renewable energy (PPG22). These, they say, have led to local planning authorities feeling pressured into approving applications despite their concerns over environmental impact. The MPs call for a strengthening of authorities' powers to decide applications so that they have more confidence that their decisions will not be overturned after a planning inquiry. They make a number of recommendations to give local planners "the confidence they need to establish locally acceptable terms of reference for the consideration of wind farm applications." They advise that decisions based on planners' own draft policies and on their assessments of the appropriate scale of their area's contribution to wind development should normally be upheld on appeal. They also call on the Welsh Office to endorse locally designated no-go areas for wind farms where these are shown to have local support.
Accepting that these measures would reduce the rate of growth of wind energy in Wales, the committee nevertheless, predicts that double the present number of sites could be granted planning permission up to the end of the century.
The committee is firmly of the opinion that planning gain -- when community's receive some form of compensation from the developer -- should play no part during the planning process. Rather, any community benefit from developers should come after the planning decision. "The industry would not deserve a long-term future -- and should not expect one -- if it had to rely on financial inducements to gain acceptance from local communities."
Wales should see more benefits accrue from the expansion of wind energy, believes the committee. It is concerned that Welsh firms are losing out on manufacturing opportunities because these are going to overseas companies. It calls on the Welsh Office and the Welsh Development Agency to look for opportunities for attracting investment into Wales to build up a manufacturing industry that would be able to take advantage of the expanding European wind energy market.
NFFO blamed for public hostility
Reflecting views within the wind industry, the report claims the government's system of support for renewables must bear much of the blame for current hostility towards wind power. It accuses the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) of supplying powerful weapons to wind power's opponents and highlights some of its drawbacks. It points out that the high rate of subsidy contained in the £0.11/kWh premium price awarded under NFFO 2, although driven by the short contract period that expires in 1998, has been "very bad publicity" for the industry. Moreover, the urgency placed on developers by the tight time limit together with the falsly competitive nature of NFFO has led to some appearing brusque and insensitive to local concerns, it says.
Looking to the longer term, the MPs recommend support for wind along the lines of the much simpler system in Denmark and Germany where electricity utilities buy any renewable electricity at a percentage of the consumer price. The committee suggests this should be fixed at a level that reflects the value of the electricity to the regional electricity companies.