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Kenly Wind Farm

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

The University of St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland. It is notable not only for being where the Earl and Countess of Strathearn met and recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, but for being a world leader in education, as a university ranked first in Scotland and third in the UK last year. It is a hub of groundbreaking research and innovation, and the largest employer in my constituency of North East Fife.

As part of that innovation, St Andrews has championed sustainability for over two decades, long before it was the dominant issue that it is today. Always leading the charge, the university has pledged to reach net zero by 2035, which is a significant commitment, given not just the date, but the approach that the university is taking. The university, led by its environmental sustainability board, chaired by Professor Sir Ian Boyd FRS, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2012 to 2019, and now professor of biology at the university, is taking on the net zero challenge, alongside local community organisations and businesses. Indeed, I attended the first meeting of the outreach group only last month. Under complementary environmental sustainability and carbon management plans, the scope of its approach encompasses procurement activities and the travel of international students coming to the university to study. I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in congratulating it on its progress to date.

Reaching that goal involves a number of practical elements, including a biomass plant on the university’s Eden campus, which was supported via the joint working of the UK and Scottish Governments on the Tay cities deal; increasing the use of solar technology; and harnessing the wind power that my hair is often subject to in North East Fife by building a small wind farm at Kenly on land owned by the university.

Planning permission for that project was initially granted in 2013—eight years ago, in a time before referendums. At that time, the Ministry of Defence seemed to be happy to work with St Andrews, supporting the university and its application. The MOD is a statutory consultee in the UK planning system for developments that could impact MOD sites, which includes wind farms. That is a critical issue, because also located in my constituency is the former RAF, now Army, base at Leuchars and its airfield. The MOD rightly has to consider issues such as the potential for wind turbines to interfere with radar systems. While the MOD raised an objection in the formal planning process, the application was granted on condition that an agreement could be reached on mitigating any interference. It was at that point, for reasons that remain unclear, that the MOD’s willingness to engage seemed to break down.

In the past eight years, St Andrews has put forward multiple proposals and made numerous, repeated and high-level attempts to explore a solution with the MOD. Indeed, I myself have already attempted, prior to this evening, to facilitate some movement, but the MOD has refused to provide any real meaningful engagement to date. It says that the proposals to mitigate interference with the radar are not good enough, but fails to articulate what would be enough.

This is not just an isolated local issue. There are 782 onshore wind farms around the UK, amounting to over 11,000 turbines and up to 66 MW of energy each year—enough to power 18.4 million homes—and this trend is not slowing down. The trade group RenewableUK is predicting that onshore wind will continue to be a preferred alternative energy source as we work towards meeting net zero goals. Organisations are being encouraged by this Government to make the switch. Last year, the net zero business champion, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), was appointed. Organisations are encouraged to join the United Nations’ Race to Zero campaign and are celebrated when they do. Part of these commitments will inevitably involve switching to clean energies such as wind. Simply put, there will be more applications for wind farms such as Kenly.

Kenly is not alone in being proposed near a military base. There are 33 RAF bases around the UK, of which at least 13 could be classed as coastal. Coastal areas have some of the best weather conditions for turbines. The Plymouth coastline, south Wales, north Norfolk, Liverpool, Belfast and the East Riding of Yorkshire are all areas where there are both wind farms and an RAF base. The question of how to safely build wind farms near to RAF and other military bases is not unique to Kenly, and this has implications. First, it highlights the lack of transparency in the system, whereby some projects have been allowed to go ahead with mitigations agreed, while others such as Kenly have failed to progress. Just up the road from Kenly, at the now former Michelin factory site in Dundee, two wind turbines were erected. The MOD also objected to this application when it was first made on the ground that it would interfere with the radar at Leuchars, but none the less an agreement was made. Without transparency on how these agreements were reached, St Andrews does not know why or how that project was allowed to go ahead while Kenly was not.

The fact that more onshore wind farms are likely to seek permissions and the likelihood that a proportion will be near RAF bases shows that it is vital for the MOD to put in place a comprehensive plan to work with developers to find meaningful solutions. If the MOD is not working to support wind farms such as Kenly, I wonder what it is doing. On 30 March this year, the MOD published its own climate change and sustainability strategic approach with a foreword by the Minister himself. This includes a commitment to working sustainably, to encouraging the development of low or zero carbon solutions, and to being a partner in the UK’s green transition. In fact, it includes an action plan, which includes a pledge to:

“Grow awareness inside and outside of Defence with a communications plan on commitments and work on climate change and sustainability, inspiring understanding among our people, the wider public, industry and international partners.”

To me, that sounds like the sort of commitment that would involve engaging with projects such as Kenly wind farm and constructively engaging with initiatives to tackle the climate emergency.

The MOD, it is true, is looking at mitigation solutions and novel technologies for use at offshore wind farms. I am sure the Minister will point out that there is an ongoing competition for proposals which closes this week. However, this is not relevant to the 782 onshore wind farms such as Kenly around the UK, as different mitigation solutions—different ways of using technology—are understandably used on land compared with offshore. Even if the solutions were relevant to onshore windfarms, this is a very slow process. It began when the MOD last directly engaged with St Andrews in 2015, and some six years later the competition is only just entering its second phase. Proceeding at this rate, it will be 2033 before the process finishes—too late for St Andrews and its goal to achieve net zero by 2035, and frankly too late for all of us. We all know that to limit global warming to 1.5° C we need to make significant changes now. We cannot afford to wait to finish this process to get started. Organisations that take on this responsibility—that are putting themselves forwards to tackle this challenge—should be supported and not stopped.

It is now two years since this House declared a climate crisis, and the situation has only worsened since that time, with the UK’s contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions continuing to outstrip its share of the global population. This is an issue that my constituents in North East Fife care about deeply. As a prospective parliamentary candidate in September 2019, I took part with other candidates and the then MP for North East Fife in the Line in the Sand climate strike ably led by young people from local high schools. During the subsequent election, students supportive of the Kenly development attended the main hustings in the constituency and made their voices heard. Yes, there were local objections during the planning process, but the rapid development of wind technologies will result in a more efficient and less obtrusive development.

The Government state that they are putting a green recovery at the front and centre of their plans, and we know that a shift to clean renewable energy has to be a key part of that process. Just this week, the Prime Minister was in Devon for the G7 summit, where commitments were made to tackle the climate crisis at home and globally, including a commitment to green energy. Later this year, the UK—Glasgow—will be hosting COP26, where I am sure pledges will again be made on green energy. We are told that it is a priority for the Government, and that may be true for some parts of it.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has published a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, and the Scotland Office has signed up to the previously mentioned Tay cities deal, which supports sustainable initiatives. So, I hope that this is a case of the MOD just needing to catch up. However, if, as the Minister himself wrote in his foreword to the MOD strategic approach, it is determined to play its full part in helping the Government to address climate change head-on, that needs to happen now.

St Andrews has been trying to work with the MOD on the conditions needed to build Kenly wind farm for eight years. The wind farm would save 7,500 tonnes of carbon per year. It would secure energy pricing into the future, freeing up funding for world-class teaching and research for a sector already hard-hit by the covid pandemic. The Government should support that as part of their aspirations for the UK to become a global innovation hub. Ultimately, it would allow St Andrews to become self-sufficient in electrical energy.

St Andrews accepts the need to work with the MOD. It was for that reason that it engaged with the MOD so early in the planning process. Its frustrations at a lack of ongoing meaningful discussions are entirely understandable. It needs to know what the MOD wants, so that it can try to provide it. If there are no ways to mitigate the risks to RAF radar, that needs to be communicated with full reasoning.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to indicate in his response whether he will agree to meet representatives from the university, the MOD’s wind farm team, me and other stakeholders so that finally a constructive way forward can be agreed.

Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for raising this important issue. I know from correspondence how keen she is to support the interests of her constituency, and it is a pleasure to respond.

I recognise that the status of the planning application for a wind farm at Kenly is matter of concern for her, the University of St Andrews and her constituents. We certainly share her desire for a swift and amicable resolution to an issue that, as the hon. Lady said, has become far too protracted. She paid tribute to the staunch work of the University of St Andrews and its ambitious plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2035. I would very much like to echo those remarks.

The impressive measures that the university has already taken to do that include using modern technology to drive energy efficiency and its Eden campus project. Since 2018, as I understand it, a 20% reduction in the university’s carbon footprint has already been delivered through solar energy and biomass heat. The Government share St Andrews’ enthusiasm to reduce carbon emissions, introducing our legally binding target of net zero by 2050 and working towards what we all—including the hon. Lady—hope will be a successful conclusion to COP26 in Glasgow later this year.

In the integrated review, the Government set out how climate change was our No. 1 international priority. We in Defence are determined to play our part in achieving the UK’s ambitions. In our climate change and sustainability strategic approach, which the hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to and which we published in March, we set out how our approach to sustainable procurement, carbon reduction and better utilisation of our estate can help to deliver results even as we learn to adapt and operate in increasingly unforgiving theatres. At President Biden’s recently inaugurated discussions on climate change, at which the Secretary of State spoke, the US Defence Secretarty, Lloyd Austin, commented that UK defence had “raised the bar” on climate change as an issue. We certainly hope to continue to do so.

We recognise the vital importance of renewable energy in helping us to meet our goals. Within the defence estate, we recently announced a £120 million project to deliver four solar farms over the next five to seven years, resulting in £1 billion in energy-efficiency savings and reducing emissions by 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The use of wind energy on the estate is very much an option to which Defence is open, where it is viable and consistent with training.

The Government are delighted to have seen the increase in the use of wind and solar energy, which now account for such a substantial proportion of total UK electricity generation. However, the very welcome expansion in wind farms has had to be monitored, and continues to be, for the impact on radar and, in particular, on civil and military air traffic control. We have a duty to protect the security and wellbeing of the people of the United Kingdom. That requires us to be able to use radar effectively to monitor our airspace where required. There is in particular a vital task of ensuring, as I say, that air traffic control has clear line of sight to help air traffic, its passengers and crew to land safely.

Many wind farms have been able to proceed, after consideration, without issue; however, we have also been keen to support the sector to find solutions that can enable further projects to go ahead. The Royal Air Force, in partnership with the Offshore Wind Industry Council, has formed a joint taskforce to develop radar mitigations. The hon. Lady is right that it focuses particularly on offshore wind and air defence radar, because that is where the greatest capacity can be released to achieve our important renewable energy targets. We also expect the lessons that we learn to be applicable, and more useful, in a wider context, including onshore.

Last year, the RAF, the UK Defence and Security Accelerator and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ran a competition to seek new technological solutions to mitigate the impact of offshore wind turbines on air defence systems. That included ways to reduce radar clutter caused by wind farms, improvements to the probability of intruder detection, the capability to fill or remove gaps in radar coverage, alternatives to radar and alterations to the design of the wind turbines.

In the first phase, DASA awarded contracts to Thales, QinetiQ, Saab, TWI and Plextek DTS to fast-track their ideas for technologies that can mitigate the impact of wind farms on the UK’s air defence radar system. Phase 2 of the competition has just closed and the winners will be announced on 8 August. I therefore assure the hon. Lady that the Ministry of Defence is keen to see the opportunities presented by wind farms expanded and, what is more, is working creatively and with the active participation of the sector, which I would like to acknowledge, to find mitigations that work and that will allow further expansion.

Having laid out the context, I turn to the specifics of Kenly, and St Andrews’ plan to build six wind turbines, capable of generating 12.3 MW of electricity and saving over 9,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The unfortunate reality, as the hon. Lady recognises, is that the project is just eight miles from the air traffic control radar at Leuchars Station. That is why, back in 2011, the MOD was involved in the initial planning process and undertook a thorough technical and operational assessment. The findings were clear: the turbines, as the proposals stood, would cause an unacceptable impact upon the air traffic control radar. Not only could they be mistaken for aircraft, but they could cause confusing radar clutter.

We cannot afford to take a risk that could put lives at risk, but to be clear, we did not rule out the proposal. Instead, we agreed with the developer that the project could go ahead as long as they provided an appropriate radar mitigation scheme before the turbines were erected. To assist developers we have a clear approach to such schemes based on a three-phase model: the identification of potential technical solutions, the trialling of preferred technical solutions, and the implementation of the technical solution.

I appreciate that the developer has made a number of attempts to proffer mitigation for the wind farm. Two such attempts involved an infill radar solution based on Edinburgh airport air traffic control radar. Those attempts were unsuccessful for various reasons, including that the proposal would have resulted in the loss of radar for an important area in the approach to the station below 900 feet, which would have presented a significant safety risk. There were also concerns about the ability to achieve seamless integration between the Edinburgh and Leuchars radars.

I do not think that it is fair to say that the MOD is not responsive. We have continued to engage. I recall that a proposal was made for a holographic radar, which I believe was the basis for the original 2013 planning application and to which the MOD did not raise objections. However, it was a higher-cost mitigation and required further evidencing. I do not believe that it was progressed by the developer but, to be clear, if a way forward that will provide mitigation can be found by the developer, through that hologram radar or other routes, we would be very keen to look at the proposal afresh and see if we can make it work.

The good news is that since 2011 significant work across the sector has been undertaken, and that continues. The hon. Lady mentioned Dundee. I do not know the details of that off the top of my head, but it is in all our interests that technology and solutions are shared. Provided that there is not a commercial or other confidentiality reason, I see no reason why that information could not be shared. I undertake to look at that for her and see if anything can be shared. I apologise in advance if there are commercial reasons that prevent it, but it is a fair and reasonable request, and I will take it under advisement and return to her.

Further to the hon. Lady’s request, if she would be kind enough to work with me I would be pleased to facilitate a meeting between St Andrews and my colleagues in the Defence Equipment and Support wind farm team. I appreciate that they have met before, indeed as recently as September 2020—again, I think at her prompting—but the MOD remains open to considering any radar mitigation scheme proposed in future. If such a meeting would be helpful, I will certainly ensure that it is facilitated.

A solution that benefits the environment, cuts carbon and maintains our radar safety net is surely the best solution for all concerned. If my team are able to guide St Andrews on our views on the most recent technological developments and wider MOD thinking, which may help it to produce a solution that is acceptable, that is something that we should all certainly welcome.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.