Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
Before I call the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), I welcome all hon. Members to this sitting in Westminster Hall. In order that Members should be comfortable, I am prepared to use an element of discretion and allow them to remove their jackets. I am showing some progressiveness that perhaps is not associated with me in normal circumstances.
I am grateful to you, Sir Nicholas, first for calling me to speak and secondly for your kindness in allowing us not to treat this Room as a free sauna, given the warmth of the day.
I sought to initiate this debate to consider the contribution of wind energy to the national interest in the broadest sense. The debate is about power and energy, and about the power of the people linked to the power of the wind. It is about the empowerment of people and sustainable development, and how wind power can benefit the environment, the economy and the community. I am delighted to be joined in the debate by someone who knows a great deal about these topics, the former environment Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). I am particularly pleased that my good friend the Minister for Energy will reply to the debate.
This debate comes a day after the statement on the energy review, and it is easy to despair at the facile way in which energy issues are often discussed and reported. The complex issues of supply that my hon. Friend the Minister has been grappling with in the review, which are crucial to our future and our economy, are reduced to the simplistic question, “Are you for or against nuclear?” I sometimes despair of the profession in which I started my working life, before I earned remission for good behaviour as a youth worker. Another issue that is reduced to a knee-jerk reaction is the question, “Are you in favour of wind farms?” That often gets two distinct answers from the same people at the same time. They say yes in general, but, “No, if it’s in my back yard”—or perhaps that should be “No, if it’s on my hill”.
The picture of protestors opposing wind generation is all too familiar to us all. They tell councillors to reject the planning application, as a community united in opposition. We often do not even bother to read the caption. I want to test that. I have with me a photograph of a crowd of protestors outside the council offices in Neath Port Talbot. They are against the planning application, are they not, and telling the council to turn it down? No. They are the supporters of Awel Aman Tawe, based in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). They are protesting against the proposal that the council should turn down their application for a four turbine, 11 MW community wind farm on Mynydd y Gwrhyd, 20 miles north of Swansea—Awel Aman Tawe. I also have statements of support from a wide range of local people, many clearly excited and inspired by the project.
I shall not go into the planning issues because there is an appeal under way to resolve the issue. I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that local opinion is coloured by at least one local application, I think in the upper Amman valley, which has sparked opposition in the community as it is believed that it is being imposed on them from outside with big business deciding the future for the local community. That is not the case with Awel Aman Tawe, and that is at the heart of this debate.
It is clear that Awel Aman Tawe demonstrates well the three strands of sustainable development—the environmental, the economic and the social. The benefits for the local community include more than £4 million over the life of the project for community projects, such as micro-renewables and energy efficiency, 32 new jobs, and construction contracts for local suppliers worth an estimated £1.5 million. It will generate enough clean energy to supply the equivalent of almost 7,000 homes, and last but not least it will help to combat global warming.
Although the planning system is dealing with the appeal, the message of community involvement is very clear. Indeed, perhaps the planning system should be able to take much greater notice of factors such as community ownership into account instead of being neutral on issues of ownership. The independent body Electoral Reform Services carried out a referendum on behalf of Awel Aman Tawe and found that almost 60 per cent. of local residents supported the development of a community wind farm. Compared with a so-called commercial initiative, the technology, the benefit, the price per kilowatt and the financial reward are the same, but for the local community it is not someone from outside coming in to do something to that community. The community owns it and controls it, and it is in its hands.
The situation is the same with the Baywind energy co-operative, which has grown from a community base in Cumbria to win the social enterprise award for the environment, which I was delighted to present to the group. It is the same for the communities that have worked with Energy4All, which is a spin-off from Baywind, to enable communities throughout the land to learn from the Baywind experience and take control of the energy supply from renewables in their area.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Co-operative Group may be the UK’s biggest farmer but it has shown a sense of community interest. As a Co-operative MP, I am pleased to see the link between the activities of the big beast of the co-operative movement and the approach of organisations such as Awel Aman Tawe and Baywind. The Co-operative Group is the UK’s largest consumer-owned co-operative business and it aims to drive commercial success through true environmental and social responsibility. In other words, it seeks to live up to the ideals of the Rochdale pioneers all those years ago.
In 2004, the group switched its power supply across 3,000 sites throughout the mainland UK to renewable energy generated from wind farms or hydropower. Co-operative Financial Services and the Co-operative Group together now account for 790 GWh of renewable purchase each year, which is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s onshore wind output. The CIS—Co-operative Insurance—solar tower is the largest ever application of photovoltaic panels in the UK. In Manchester earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe opened the UK’s biggest inner-city micro-wind farm, involving 19 micro-wind turbines, on the CFS Portland street building.
The link to Awel Aman Tawe is that last Thursday, 6 July, saw the official switch-on of the Coldham wind farm in Cambridgeshire as a joint venture between the Co-operative Group and ScottishPower, engaging the local community. It is a £17 million, eight turbine wind farm that will realise enough green energy to power 9,000 homes and to save 36,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. That is because the group
“recognises the importance of involving local people at the outset and giving them direct input into all aspects of wind farm schemes”.
Those are not my words, but those of the group’s chief executive, Martin Beaumont.
The significance of that development could increase, because there are plans to develop wind turbine schemes that could lead to the supply of 100 GW of electricity to the national grid within three years, which is enough to power more than 20,000 homes. That includes plans for a second, larger wind farm with 14 turbines at Goole in Humberside, also on Co-op farm land. That is also why Co-operative Action is supporting the Baywind energy co-operative. Baywind was formed in 1996, and today, with more than 1,300 members, owns five wind turbines near Ulverston and one in Cumbria.
I am also pleased to learn that in Wales Energy4All’s manager, Steve Cranston, is contacting all the developers involved in bidding on Forestry Commission land to request some aspect of community ownership as part of technical advice note 8, which is known as TAN 8. Energy4All is working with Nuon in Wales and hopes to progress an agreement with Airtricity through Dulas.
The potential of the development is huge and growing. I am told that for every community project that Energy4All is involved in, it receives another 100 inquiries. Yet that sector receives no Government support. I want to make it clear that I am arguing not for subsidy, but for cash and support to nurture and help the capacity building that is vital in community ownership and co-operative developments and for the Government to get stuck into the nitty-gritty of the work that is necessary to enable the sector to take off at an even faster rate.
Let us consider some of the projects, such as Westmill wind farm co-operative in Oxfordshire. Energy4All took over full development of the five turbine site in August 2005 and raised £4.4 million over Christmas to build the first onshore wind farm in the south-east, which is 100 per cent. community owned. The development of the project is of significant strategic importance for social enterprises as well as for onshore wind use.
There is also the case of Beech farm in Tavistock, where a public inquiry is due to be held in October. The appeal, for two 850 kW turbines, was brought by the landowners, Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, against West Devon council. The inspector has requested a section 106 agreement to confirm that the site will develop as a co-operative if successful.
If anyone is in doubt, let me spell out the benefits of community involvement and ownership. It encourages proactive rather than reactive community engagement and accountability—the community is not simply being consulted about something that is done to it; it is involved. It responds to the concerns and needs of local people, and it ensures the efficient targeting of investment.
Community involvement and ownership raises awareness of the need for action on climate change. We need to engage the whole of the population in dealing with that issue; acting alone, the Government will make slow progress. It delivers key public services in partnership with local authorities. It delivers also direct accountability for stakeholders and energy consumers. It develops the capacity for smaller projects, which depend on investors accepting a lower return. Sites that are closer to demand may therefore be on less sensitive sites, and the community will support the development.
Such involvement also delivers direct economic benefits and revenue streams for members. It brings together and co-ordinates complex relationships between key stakeholders for biomass and district heating schemes. Such schemes often fail because of a lack of engagement and support, again because people feel that something is being done to them. Investment is mobilised from members and the wider community, which is significant in meeting the Government’s objectives. It supports longer-term infrastructure investment.
Embedded energy is, of its nature, more efficient. It develops tailored local solutions to project delivery. It attracts new skills and jobs into the social enterprise sector at local level. I believe that those advantages are enormously important. It is wonderful stuff. The country that invented co-operation and social enterprise should be proud of it, yet community renewables have made slower progress in the United Kingdom than in other north European countries.
The three key reasons for that have been identified as finance, time and knowledge. The key is not massive grants or Government schemes but access to finance and a better understanding by national and local bureaucracies of how to nurture the sector’s potential. It is not just a question of looking for the quantum of wind energy; we need to recognise that engaging people can release existing potential.
Energy4All has called on the Government to give direct funding to the social enterprise sector, to pay for staff time and to provide risk funding through the revolving loan fund, which will allow communities to take appropriate schemes forward. The House should mark my words: I underline and support that approach. A revolving loan fund does not have to be a drag on the Exchequer, but it will not happen without some Government help to facilitate and accelerate the process.
There is also a huge demand for the Government to provide access to renewable energy information and expertise to ensure that good quality schemes in all technologies can move forward; thus, we can gain the multiple benefits of rural and urban sustainable heat and power.
In summary, community involvement, accountability and ownership is the key to achieving the successful integration of distributed renewable generation schemes, which will largely be below 10 MW. Current support is dispersed and inefficient, so it cannot deal with the current barriers or meet public demand.
Support and facilitation for community, individual and business-owned renewable energy schemes has the potential to play a key role in unblocking the economically viable potential of all technologies. If structured appropriately, the cost of assistance through information and financial support will represent considerable value for money, given the anticipated social, economic and environmental returns.
We know the environmental benefits of maximising the use of wind energy; it will cut emissions and reduce dependence on nuclear power. However, some people still think that its impact on the rural environment is negative. For example, the briefing provided for today’s debate by the Campaign to Protect Rural England was not wholly negative about wind energy, but it was disappointing and lacking in vision. It damned wind energy with faint praise, so I shall take its argument head on.
I was brought up on the edge of Snowdonia. I spent years introducing young people to its finest landscapes. I have had ministerial responsibility for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in Wales and England. The last thing that I want to see is a wind farm on Moel Siabod or Striding Edge. However, I am amazed that people who can ignore the ugly intrusion of electricity pylons striding across our countryside—are they invisible, perhaps because they have been there for decades?—are opposed to wind farms, which can be a calming and even an inspirational sight as one comes over the brow of a hill.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on initiating such a timely debate. He spoke of pylons striding across our countryside, and I share his concern about that. Would he not concede that if we continue with the current policy of developing large-scale wind farms of above 50 MW, for example, in areas on the edge of Snowdonia, even more pylons will be striding across our countryside?
No, I do not.
I have stood at the roadside looking at a small number of wind turbines on one side of the valley and seeing pylons further up—pylons not associated with the wind farm—yet people say that the turbines are ugly, and that they do not like them. I ask them to compare the two. When one walks over the brow of a hill and sees the turbines of a wind farm one can see that, in the right place, they are attractive. They generate energy in a way that is socially and visually attractive.
What is the reason for that knee-jerk reaction? Many people have become used not only to pylons but to the extraction of minerals in some of our most beautiful landscapes; it does not arouse their anger, yet they have a knee-jerk opposition to wind farms, even those sited in appropriate locations in the countryside. I do not understand it. It does not make sense. The answer is that it depends on who is establishing the wind farms and for whom. If wind turbines are imposed by big business to make a quick buck—or even, as some perceive it, imposed by the Government—then resentment will kick in. Judgments are made, but not always by those who have to live with the consequences.
I want my hon. Friend the Minister to promise two things. First, I ask him to make it clear that wind energy will be owned by the community and that if big companies or bodies such as the Co-operative Group want to come in, they will have to show the community benefit, community support and genuine engagement. I ask him also to set requirements that will test objectively whether schemes are community led.
Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend to support and promote the practice of community wind farm ownership that I have outlined. We all know that the principles of community ownership—co-operation and mutuality—have great power. They bring long-term benefits. They have the power to move mountains. However, that approach needs to be nurtured and, as I said earlier, that involves cash, time and knowledge.
My hon. Friend will recall that I supplied him with a copy of a publication commissioned by Peter Hunt of Mutuo entitled “Community engagement in energy through energy mutuals”. It was researched by Dr. Gill Owen, and I provided an introduction. It made two clear recommendations about how to remove the barriers for community engagement though energy mutuals.
The first recommendation was that the Government should take the lead, perhaps through a community energy unit, in maximising and harvesting the benefits that have been demonstrated—for instance, by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I do not want to suggest a specific solution to my hon. Friend; I ask him to accept the principle and seek the best way to ensure that the Government are proactive in nurturing such an approach.
The second recommendation was that a renewable heat obligation should be put in place. I am encouraged by the interest shown yesterday in expressing the output of the energy industry in terms of heat and light rather than in specific forms of energy. The Mutuo booklet was ahead of its time in that respect; I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that it is now part of mainstream thinking.
I have tried to show that wind energy can provide the classic benefits of democracy, especially when linked to the key Government principle of sustainable development—the principle that, in all we do, we should balance and integrate economic, social and environmental considerations. The problem is that those factors are dealt with in separate silos of Government. The publication of the energy review report and yesterday’s statement give my hon. Friend a unique opportunity to take the leadership in bringing those three aspects together. What better example than community-owned wind generation? If Whitehall takes it seriously, the Government could have a win-win-win situation.
It is obvious that maximising renewable energy is key to our future. We would be mad not to support it; it helps feed the energy needs of our national economy. It is also obvious, is it not, that wind energy benefits the environment, whether the countryside or our global future?
Clearly, a community empowered to make its own decisions is likely to choose the wind turbine option, which helps the national and international interest. Above all, that option would help it meet its own energy needs, become at best a new contributor instead of a net consumer and learn to be empowered to make its own decisions in a national and international context.
The issue is urgent; we are trailing in seventh place on installed wind capacity. Germany leads the way with 18,400 MW, followed by Spain with 10,000 MW and the USA with 9,100 MW. Capacity is hardly proportionate to size. The UK has the greatest wind resource in Europe, yet we are not using it. I want to help the Minister change that picture. Wind power’s time has come, and I urge the Minister to be brave and help Whitehall understand the creative opportunity before it. My plea is that we should enable community wind energy to support the Government in what they and my hon. Friend the Minister are trying to do.
I understand the Minister’s challenges; he has to balance costs and needs, the national interest, the protection of supplies and the energy mix necessary for this country to have a productive future. Will he acknowledge that the power of the people and the community, linked to the production of wind energy, has a part to play in his strategy? With his support and encouragement, people are far more likely to face the big challenges set out in yesterday’s statement. Let the people be part of the solution, rather than being perceived as part of the problem.
Again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing this debate, which is extremely timely. He may be surprised to hear that I agree with a great deal of what he said. Clearly, the thrust of his argument is that communities should be empowered, in the sense of coming to wind as a source of energy that they wish to embrace, rather than as one imposed on them.
Wind energy certainly has a large part to play in addressing this country’s energy needs. Once in operation, it is a relatively non-polluting source of generation. However, it has serious drawbacks. First, it is self-evidently inefficient because when the wind does not blow, or when it blows too hard, no energy is generated. That means that conventional fossil fuel power stations must operate in the background, ready to kick in when the wind drops.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the installation of a number of community-owned or non-community-owned wind farms throughout the country would substantially reduce and probably remove the element of variability that he talks about? The wind always blows somewhere in the country, and if the wind energy produced fed into the grid, the variability, aggregated out, would hardly be different from that provided by the base load of conventional power.
That argument is correct, but it presupposes that we are willing to have wind farms on an industrial scale throughout the country; I imagine that most people would be extremely reluctant to see that.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that fossil fuels are more efficient than wind power. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) talked about microgeneration and community-based generation and power, which are inherently enormously more efficient because they avoid the more than 50 per cent. conversion losses inherent in large-scale fossil fuel power stations.
My point was that wind power is inefficient to the extent of being unreliable. Clearly, the wind does not always blow; sometimes, it blows too strongly. Certain Members would be happy to see the country littered with wind farms, but many people would not.
I ask the hon. Gentleman not to join the knee-jerk brigade and talk down wind farms and wind energy as he has done. What he says is inaccurate. He needs to take a more balanced approach.
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I listened carefully to what he said in almost complete silence. I agreed with much of it. If he let me develop my argument, he might agree with something that I have to say. I want to talk about empowering people, and I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is also interested in doing that.
The fact is that exaggerated, sometimes—dare I say it—overblown claims are made about the effectiveness of wind farms. Cefn Croes, for example, is the largest onshore wind farm in Wales; until recently, it was the largest wind farm in the country. We were constantly told that it had an installed capacity of 58.5 MW, which in itself is true. However, its operational load factor is about 32 to 35 per cent.—about one third—of its capacity.
Wind is also an extraordinarily environmentally intrusive source of generation. Although it cannot be pretended that conventional or nuclear power stations are attractive structures, they are usually confined to small geographical areas, frequently in already industrialised parts of the country. By contrast, wind farms are far more visually intrusive, often covering tens of square miles located in areas of attractive countryside.
Wind turbines are becoming progressively larger. Modern turbines, such as that proposed for the Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of north Wales, are more than 500 ft high, taller than the Blackpool tower. Turbine blades now have a span greater than the wing span of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Wind farms have a significant and often adverse effect on open seascapes and landscapes and often attract a large degree of local opposition. That should not be dismissed as mere nimbyism, as the right hon. Gentleman (Alun Michael) suggests. Seascapes and landscapes are valuable national resources and ought not to be spoiled unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.
The hon. Gentleman uses the pejorative term “spoiled” and says that such things should not be done without compelling reason. Does he not think that the threat of global climate change is compelling?
My point is that there is a balance to be struck. The wind farm lobby seems to think that wind farms should be stuck on any available stretch of countryside, but clearly they should not. This country has unique and beautiful visual resources, and we must be careful about where we site wind farms.
I wish to concentrate on two matters, which the Government should consider seriously. First, they should consider the operation of the renewables obligation, which I have taken up with the Minister on previous occasions. He has acknowledged to me that the obligation is a blunt instrument. Its problem is that it makes no distinction between the intrinsic merits of various renewable technologies. Consequently, it rewards the least capital-intensive source of generation, which at the moment is wind. That means that wind farms are virtually certain to continue to proliferate for as long as the obligation remains unreformed.
That is a pity, because other sources of renewable power such as tidal, wave and biomass power, are far less visually intrusive and potentially much more beneficial. For example, tidal power is infinitely more reliable than wind power; it is difficult to think of anything more predictable than the ebb and flow of the tide. Yet because tidal power is less developed, there is little incentive under the renewables obligation to pursue tidal schemes. That is a huge pity, and I hope that, in the wake of the energy review, the Government will consider refining the obligation to consider other, less intrusive forms of renewable energy.
Secondly, I should like the Minister to address the question of the planning and consent process. At present, the principal consent route for wind farms of more than 50 MW is section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. Infrastructure development is governed by the normal town and country planning processes, as are wind farms of less than 50 MW. The difficulty with the two processes is that they have been constructed so as to reduce considerably the right of local objectors to make meaningful representations. There is no appeals procedure under section 36 of the 1989 Act, and through technical advice note 8 in Wales and planning policy statement 22 in England, the town and country planning process imposes a presumption in favour of the development of wind farms.
An extreme example of the consequences was the Scarweather sands development in south Wales. An inspector decided that the objectors were right, that the farm should not proceed and that the application should be refused. The decision was overruled by the Welsh Assembly Committee that considered the inspector’s report. It decided that the scheme should proceed, notwithstanding the fact that the inspector had recommended that it should not, as it accorded with the principles set out in the Assembly’s planning policy.
It cannot be right that a swathe of local residents supported by technical and scientific advice and, most importantly, by the planning inspector who considered the application, were rendered virtually voiceless. Such decisions give rise to huge resentment on the part of local communities.
First, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to have such disregard for the democratic processes that put elected representatives in the Assembly. He would rather have an appointed inspector as the final arbiter on an appeal of that sort. Secondly, does he realise that he is making my case very well by demonstrating that if the structures are left to the antagonism between a local community and a proposal, rather than starting off with the full engagement of the local community, the events that he is describing are almost inevitable?
Of course I am making that case. That was the whole point of giving the example.
The fact is that local people were disempowered by the planning procedure. My point is that it is necessary for the Government to be far more sensitive to the concerns of local people, and to that extent I agree entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. If local communities want small-scale wind farms that are appropriate to their needs, they should have them.
The problem is that the thrust of Government policy at present is to impose schemes on local communities in complete disregard of often quite proper objections. If more and more wind farms are to be developed, it is necessary for the Government to be more and more sensitive to the concerns of local people. I hope that in the wake of the energy review, the Government will develop procedures that will allow them to be far more responsive to the concerns of local people.
The notice process has caused extreme concern in my constituency. An application was made some years ago by Celtic Offshore Wind for the development of a wind farm at a location that was described as being on the Rhyl flats. The Rhyl flats is an area that is identified on Admiralty charts. As one might imagine, it is off the coast at the town of Rhyl. [Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman for Cardiff, South and Penarth may laugh, but the point of the story is that consent was granted, and when local residents carried out further investigations it turned out that the wind farm was not cited on the Rhyl flats at all but on another area of sea called the Constable bank, which is about 10 miles to the west of the town of Rhos-on-Sea. One wonders why the developers applied the description of Rhyl flats to the wind farm when it was not on the Rhyl flats but on a totally different maritime feature. Those of a less charitable disposition might suggest that they did that because they anticipated far less opposition from the townspeople of Rhyl than from the extremely articulate people of Rhos-on-Sea.
The Government should take steps to ensure that the planning and consent process is as transparent as possible, that a clear indication is given in statutory notices of the proposed location of wind farms and that pain is not caused to people such as those in Rhos-on-Sea in my constituency, who woke up one morning to be told that a wind farm was to be placed there and not, as they thought, on the area of seabed known as the Rhyl flats. One can imagine their concern. I invite the Minister to address that matter. I have raised it with him previously, but it is important to raise it again.
To summarise, I support the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and believe that communities should be empowered and should have a voice. I believe that they should have a wind farm if they want one, but the Government have a positive duty to ensure that their voices are heard and not ignored when large-scale industrial wind farms are to be imposed on communities.
It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael). We have been co-operating on a range of issues for 19 years in this House, both in and out of Government. He has always been a great campaigner for the co-operative movement, and he made a powerful and articulate case for how co-operative principles can be used to empower communities and give them real involvement in sustainable development, recognising the three key strands of social, economic and environmental development.
This is an urgent issue. We hear of opposition to wind farms and, as discussed in the contribution of the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), the need for more support for tidal energy. Indeed, there ought to be more support for all forms of renewables. That was made clear in the very good statement that we heard yesterday on the energy review in which my hon. Friend the Minister was involved.
However, the fact remains that wind is one of this country’s most important resources. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth stated, we have the best wind resources in the whole of Europe, and it would not make any sense not to utilise and benefit from them. That means that it is inevitable that there will be many applications for wind farms and wind turbines.
We must harness that resource. Of course, it needs to be done appropriately, and we must take into account the legitimate concerns of communities, but the hon. Member for Clwyd, West was wrong when he said that wind farms are inefficient. This debate is not particularly about advocating the benefits or otherwise of wind farms but about co-operative ownership and how we take issues forward.
The Sustainable Development Commission produced an excellent report on renewables. It exploded some of the myths and made it clear that wind generation is, in fact, one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of energy in this country. The hon. Gentleman said that wind farms are about 35 per cent. efficient. The fact is that a coal-burning station is only 30 per cent. efficient—there is a lack of efficiency in these things—and wind comes out very well when one takes into account that it is part of the national grid, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) rightly pointed out.
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that nuclear power stations are approximately 95 per cent. efficient?
No, I would not concede that. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to review the record of output of nuclear power stations, which is nothing like 90 per cent. They spend a lot of time down for maintenance, repair and sometimes because of breakdown. It is not the case that they achieve 90 per cent. efficiency—the figure does not exist. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman reads the SDC report, as it evaluates all forms of energy and considers efficiency ratings and such issues.
Onshore and offshore wind energy can make a substantial contribution to this country’s energy needs. In fact, the proposed London Array in itself—just one offshore wind farm—will account for about 1 per cent. of the electricity supply in this country and will meet the whole of London’s needs. Such significant investments can make a significant contribution.
The hon. Gentleman also missed what was said in the energy review and the comments yesterday, in that the Government have already said that they are willing to review the concept of banding for renewables obligation certificates. I very much welcome that, and there might well be an argument for a higher rate for offshore wind, as opposed to onshore wind, because it is more expensive to develop offshore. There might well also be an argument for a higher rate for tidal energy, which, like wind and other forms of energy, is on the threshold of commercialisation. I very much welcome the Government’s announcement in that regard, because that is absolutely the right way forward.
There has been a lot of debate recently about political consensus, and that is particularly true of climate change, which is the overriding environmental threat that we face this century. There is a real urgency about the need to combat climate change, because the latest science that we have available—much of it has come from UK scientific institutions—suggests that the effects of climate change are worse, and are being seen faster, than was originally envisaged. Several eminent scientists argue that we are in danger of reaching a tipping point and that if the concentration of greenhouse gases goes beyond a certain level, the problem may take a century to rectify. The longer that process goes on, the higher the concentrations will be and the more difficult and expensive it will be to rectify the problem. The consensus is that it will take about a decade to make a real difference to global warming and climate change globally. I certainly accept that and very much worry about it.
There are also planning issues, as my right hon. Friend mentioned. As all Members of Parliament and elected councillors know, planning issues and arguments are complex. The nimby syndrome is well understood, but we have moved on from it and towards the banana syndrome, with people saying that we should build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. That has become an established principle, which applies whether we are talking about a bus stop or a nuclear power station. That is a problem, and we cannot ignore people’s concerns, but there is an argument for looking at the planning system and making it more streamlined, responsive and relevant to today’s needs. I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will do that. It is not only that there is an issue about nuclear power stations, which are a completely separate matter; it is that the planning system and the planning process need examining.
I am not saying that people do not occasionally have valid reasons for objecting to wind farms, for example. Indeed, several high-profile applications have been turned down at the planning stage, because the case that local people have made has been accepted. I do not know the details of the case in Wales, although I do know that the Welsh Assembly Committee, to which the hon. Member for Clwyd, West referred, is an all-party committee. It is part of the democratic process, and I assume that, on balance, it thought that the arguments, including the inspector’s input, showed that there was still a case for the wind farm in question. That is the nature of democracy and the planning system. To be blunt, many people object to any sort of change because they worry about the impact that it might have on the price of their houses—that is the big motivator for many of the objections. However, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that although wind farms might have a short-term impact, they have no impact in the longer term, and people should understand that.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong about public opinion. When people are asked whether they support wind farms, the polling evidence shows that there is about 70 to 80 per cent. approval for them, so support is actually quite high. That brings me back to the idea of political consensus. Whenever there is an application, it is very depressing to see pressure being put on Members of Parliament of all parties, who feel an obligation to campaign on behalf of local residents, although that is, of course, part of the democratic process. During the general election, however, I noticed that the Conservative candidate in a neighbouring constituency, where there are quite a number of applications, spent nearly his whole time campaigning against wind farms—not that it did him much good. That suggests that although people close to the sites of proposed wind farms might be concerned, people overall have a much more mature and balanced outlook on the role of wind in our energy mix.
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 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.
I should like briefly to add one dimension to the excellent debate that we have had about the merits of 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 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.
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?
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.
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.
I shall endeavour to use fewer than my 10 minutes, Sir Nicholas, but I have important questions for the Minister. I congratulate 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.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there are no seascapes in this country that ought to be protected?
Of course not.
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 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:
“'There’s a lack of independent, verifiable evidence to support the performance claims of turbines attached to buildings…There’s been a lot of hype and a lot of interest”.
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:
“'We found the performance of them is on average between 10 and 25 per cent. of what the manufacturers are claiming.”
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 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.
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 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:
“Without additional support for offshore wind (and other renewable technology), the development of offshore wind (and other renewable technology) installations at scale in the UK will be held back; the UK renewable energy targets will be missed by a wide margin, carbon reduction targets will be harder to meet and an opportunity for renewable energy to become a meaningful component of the UK's energy mix may pass”.
The problem is that the renewables obligation in its present form—in respect of which the Government said yesterday that there would be no changes before 2009-10—provides a significant incentive for building wind farms at the expense of other renewable technologies. The renewables obligation does not do enough to incentivise photovoltaic, geothermal, wave and tidal technologies, and it does not do very much to stimulate research into technologies that are still at the experimental or prototype stage. Put simply, the renewables obligation is the reason why there are so many applications to build wind farms throughout the country. In some senses, that is a good thing, but it is a bit of a one-card trick. Given the proliferation of applications for ever-larger wind farms—illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones)—a level of local opposition is understandable.
The thrust of the debate has been that local opposition is not inevitable if the local community is empowered and does not see it as something that is done to them.
It is inevitable and recurrent, but it may be overcome. At the moment there is a stand-off between the renewables obligation pushing for these things and much popular opinion that is wary of them arriving on their doorstep, but there is no proper mechanism for marrying the two positions in a way that can engage people in a proper, effective democratic process. That situation is illustrated by the difference of opinion in the Chamber today. If the issue were considered and people were taken to see the sites, there might be far less disagreement, but the trouble is that that is not happening.
Once people think that a wind farm might be located on a beauty spot, they immediately resile from ever thinking that it might be all right. That is what this debate is all about. It is not a simple them and us, nimby/banana debate. People have fixed views and are either fervently for or against wind farms. There is a lot of misunderstanding, as is the case in so many areas of politics, life and everything on this planet. Wind farms are a classic case of people wanting to protect beauty spots and thinking that they cannot contribute, but not knowing how to overcome their suspicions. We have further steps to take if we are to address this matter properly. Wind has a part to play in a low-carbon energy future, but over-reliance on it is the wrong way forward and it may not be letting other technologies get a fair look-in.
Changes to the renewables obligation are long overdue; we have been calling for them since the last election. Although we have often been criticised by the Government, they are now going to change things, which is good. Their suggestion yesterday about creating bands within the renewables obligation could be a part of the answer, but we should like to see those implemented before 2009-10, unless there is clear evidence that they will damage investment risk and decisions that are currently being undertaken or are in the planning stage. The Government have to be careful not to introduce new distortions when creating bands. It is not easy, but we should always fly a warning flag on Government intervention of this sort, because their action often has unforeseen consequences. It should be the responsibility of the Government not to pick the mix, but to create the right framework and the right incentives.
I do not share Sir Bernard Ingham’s view that windmills are all spin and no substance; that jibe may be mythological, but it sounds like him. They are good in the right place and are emissions-benign, but, depending on people’s views, they are either visually intrusive or attractive. Divided opinion on this matter rests on an aesthetic argument and a subjective judgment. I used not to like the things, but quite near my constituency there is a 10 turbine farm near Kettering, which, with better technology, is rotating more slowly and is very elegant and beautiful because it is in the right place. Ultimately, it is a matter of where these things are and whether the people who live near or around them find them palatable or unpalatable.
Whether it is a matter of love or hate, nimby or banana, or whatever, the argument is about scale and place, in trying to get the balance right, we face a social and political challenge. I hope that, in terms of financial incentives and the planning process, we can in the decades ahead ensure that we get it right and let such sources play a part in a low-carbon energy future.
This has been an important and timely debate, following the publication of the energy review yesterday. We have to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) for securing the debate.
My starting point is that wind is a renewable, clean source of energy that is in plentiful supply in this country. The idea of harnessing the power of the wind is hardly new; in fact, it is pre-industrial. The presence of windmills throughout the UK, some hundreds of years old, is testament to that. I have no idea whether in those far-away days Conservative Members of Parliament were tilting at windmills. With the occasional exception today, we have heard a number of powerful speeches in favour not just of the principle of wind energy, but of the practice. I do not know whether that is a widespread view.
We are talking not only about windmills, but the cutting edge of electricity generation technology. The Government recognise that wind farm developments have an important part to play in our energy mix, both in the wider context of maintaining the security of our energy supplies—which is important as a form of home-grown energy at a time of potentially large energy imports to this country over the coming decades—and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Wales is already making a welcome contribution to renewable energy targets: almost 25 per cent. of total UK onshore wind farm generating capacity is located there. North Hoyle, our first large-scale wind farm to generate electricity offshore, has been operating successfully for more than two years.
We need to put this debate in the context of climate change, as several hon. Members have done, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), whose expertise in this area we value. A report published earlier this year, “Avoiding dangerous climate change”, concluded that the risk of climate change is probably even greater than we thought, but it also showed that much can be done to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The report suggests that a rise of just 2° C will be enough to cause a tripling of poor harvests in Europe and Russia, large-scale displacement of people in north Africa due to desertification and could leave up to 2.8 billion people at risk of water shortage.
Other evidence shows that this is not just theory. Global warming is having a debilitating impact on many people at the moment in the form of rising levels of children dying from malaria and diarrhoea, as a recent World Health Organisation report showed. The effects could also include the total loss of summer arctic sea ice, causing the potential extinction of the polar bear and the walrus in future.
Action now could help to avert the worst effects of climate change, but we should not underestimate the scale of the task. Since 1990, global emissions of carbon dioxide alone have risen by 20 per cent. The UK, however, is making progress. We are ahead of our Kyoto target, with estimates showing that carbon dioxide emissions will be between 15 and 18 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. At the same time, our economy has seen a 24 per cent. increase in gross domestic product since 1997. Our experience shows that decarbonisation need not damage economic growth, although we obviously need to go further, improving that important hypothesis. We have set an aim of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Nothing less than a radical change in how we generate and use energy will be needed, and renewable energy can help to deliver that.
Let me comment more specifically on wind energy. We have set a target to supply 10 per cent. of our electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and we expect the largest contribution up to 2010 to come from wind, both onshore and offshore. Currently, wind is one of the most economic renewable technologies, which is why it is doing so well. Last year, we saw more than 440 MW of new wind capacity built—356 MW onshore and 90 MW offshore—which is a record so far. A further 479 MW is under construction, including the 90 MW Barrow offshore wind farm, which is due to be commissioned next month. If we meet our 10 per cent. target, we will save 2.5 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2010, based on 1990 levels if the equivalent had been generated from gas. That is why it is important that we take action now and why wind is key in tackling the problem of climate change.
Yesterday, the energy review was published and the Government announced that we were making changes to the way in which we support renewable energy, to help us to go further and faster. The renewables obligation has been very successful so far in driving renewable generation. That has more than doubled in the four years since the introduction of the obligation. The cheapest renewable technologies, such as onshore wind and landfill gas, have done well under the obligation, but there is still a lot of potential in that respect that we want to tap. However, those technologies can take us only so far. There are only so many landfill sites and suitably windy sites for wind farms onshore.
To achieve the step change, we will need to go beyond 10 per cent. renewables and get towards our 20 per cent. aspiration. We will also need emerging technologies, especially offshore wind, to do more, but those emerging technologies are not yet really taking off, because of their cost. As a result, the Government announced yesterday two major changes to strengthen and widen the impact of the renewables obligation. First, we shall extend the obligation up to 20 per cent. renewables. We shall not do that in fixed steps, as we do up to 15 per cent. Instead, we shall raise the obligation only when that is justified by growth in renewables.
Secondly, we shall consult on banding the renewables obligation—that is, providing greater support for emerging technologies and less for established ones. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) called for that, and we responded yesterday to that request. In doing that, we will protect existing investments where possible, to maintain investor confidence in the renewables obligation.
Does the Minister share the concerns of the British Wind Energy Association expressed in response to the review? It said yesterday:
“It is in no one’s interest for development of the most cost effective renewable energy technology to be hindered by policy changes.”
I am sure that we shall hear a range of views from those with an interest. All I will say is that we will consult. We have set out the principles of where we want to move to. That will require primary and secondary legislation and will take several years. That is the answer to the question about why we cannot move quicker.
We need also to ensure that we manage the burden on electricity consumers. Prices have increased significantly in the past year. We need to ensure that our package does not hit consumers even harder. That is why we are freezing the buy-out price in 2015.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will briefly, but I want to answer the points that have been made.
I am very interested in the wider aspects that the Minister is covering and they are very important, but the central thrust of the debate is about the potential for community empowerment also to make a contribution to the objectives. I hope that he will come to that in the final five minutes.
I had better not say that that intervention has delayed me by 20 seconds in getting there, because that would be ungracious, but I do want to make that point. Indeed, I was about to say that my right hon. Friend, through his commitment to co-operation, has brought the spirit of Robert Owen to the debate. I share his analysis and values: if communities feel that outsiders are coming in and wanting to do things to the community, it is more likely that the community will be hostile. If the community can be involved in a range of ways, it is more likely that projects will be encouraged.
The Renewables Advisory Board commissioned a study in 2005 entitled “Community Benefits from Wind Power: A study of UK practice and comparison with leading European Countries”. It concluded that
“overseas evidence points to a need to make meaningful community benefits more routine and systematic in UK wind power projects if future rates of deployment are to grow.”
Following that report’s recommendations, a further three pieces of work have been commissioned by the Renewables Advisory Board. The first piece of work is on community benefits from wind power development. The second is on public engagement protocols for wind power projects, and the third is on bankable models for community ownership of wind farms. I am pleased that that work is being undertaken. I want to see what developments we can help to encourage and facilitate in the months to come. I am happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about that more informally.
We also have a community renewables initiative, and although that applies only to England, it is for the National Assembly to consider similar support in Wales. I am pleased that the initiative has been sustained; indeed, in March the Government announced more than £400,000 of additional funding for the initiative. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe was instrumental in helping to deliver that. So far, the initiative has helped 91 community renewable energy projects, and 294 projects are also nearing completion, so it is an important initiative.
I should also mention the low carbon buildings programme, because we now have some £80 million to spend on microgeneration. That will enable us, in different community buildings, not least schools, to bring some of the ideas about co-operation and community to life. Only yesterday, I was at the Ashburton learning village, which involves a community school in my borough of Croydon. There is the most fantastic array of photovoltaics on the new building. It was a delight to hear the young students and teachers telling me how they are learning about energy and the environment through using renewables in their school.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and other colleagues will see that in the energy review we talk about the importance of distributed energy. We say that we will investigate
“the potential of distributed energy as a long-term alternative or supplement”
to our current highly centralised system. There is much in the review to encourage my right hon. Friend. I am interested in the themes that he introduces. It is important, when developments affect communities, that the communities are on board in one or different ways. Where there can be community ownership, I would welcome that.
I again congratulate my right hon. Friend and all other contributors to what has been a useful debate. I am interested in the themes of co-operation and community involvement and I hope that we can discuss that in the future both formally, in the Chamber, and more informally with colleagues.