East Anglian MPs are among a dissident band of Tory backbenchers criticising the government’s support for “inefficient” onshore wind turbines.
When Ed Davey assumed the ministerial post vacated by Chris Huhne earlier this week, he wasted no time in reasserting the nation’s imperative for renewable energy.
“There will be no change in direction or ambition,” he said. “My priorities are very simple: green jobs, green growth and getting the best deal for energy bill payers”.
And yet one of Mr Davey’s first challenges as energy secretary was a revolt from his coalition colleagues which has reawakened the howling gale of controversy over wind turbines.
More than 100 Tory backbenchers, including several from East Anglia, wrote to the Prime Minister demanding he “dramatically cut” the £400m in annual subsidies paid to onshore wind developers.
Their letter says: “In these financially straightened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies on-shore wind turbines.”
Signatories include Richard Bacon (South Norfolk), Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth), Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk), Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), Steven Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) and David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds).
The rebel MPs said turbines were better placed offshore where the wind is stronger and the landscape impact can be minimised.
But industry leaders insist onshore schemes are the cheapest renewable solution available, and have a vital part to play in reducing Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said: “Getting consumers to pay a great deal of money for inefficient and unpredictable energy production is not the way forward in difficult financial times – or at any time. By its nature, wind is very unpredictable and they seem to be impressed when they get 29pc efficiency, but that does not seem very efficient to me.
“To build these turbines on an industrial scale is wholly inappropriate for a rural landscape. It is just wrong to have structures the size of Big Ben sticking out into the countryside. They are getting taller and taller and the people who are having their environment blighted are paying for it through their taxes and through their energy bills.
“If they really are efficient then why do they need a subsidy? That is the obvious question. We should spend what little taxpayers’ money we have available on things like making new-build houses more energy-efficient, rather than subsidising these huge structures which make a few people rich and a lot more people pay through the nose.”
Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis added: “My issue with it is we have got several thousand turbines about to be built offshore, so quite why we need a few to be built on the land, I don’t know.
“I have got no problem with offshore, because they can be built in a quantity where they become effective and efficient, and where the problem of blight does not apply.”
The letter to David Cameron also expresses concerns that the government’s proposed shake-up of the planning system “diminishes the chances of local people defeating onshore wind farm proposals”.
It says the UK target to achieve 15pc of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 had been cited by planning inspectors as being “more important than planning considerations” when deciding disputed developments.
Those concerns echo the fears of the myriad of community action groups formed across the region in defiant, indignant opposition to large-scale energy developments.
But one company planning wind farms in South Norfolk dismissed the claims of inefficiency and said the clear need for a secure, diverse and sustainable supply of energy must over-ride local environmental concerns.
Bruce Hutt is director of TCI Renewables, which is planning wind farms at Pulham St Mary, Tivetshall and Hempnall – all opposed by local campaign groups.
“Everyone says put them offshore, but they ignore the fact that it is much more expensive to do that, and the energy has to come ashore somewhere,” he said. “Then there is the whole hue and cry about cable routes and substations. People either want their lights to stay on or they don’t.
“You cannot call turbines inefficient. If you have got a coal-fired power station you would have to dig up the coal, put it in a lorry and then take it somewhere to burn it, when half of it is wasted as heat and half of it becomes electricity. That is incredibly inefficient.
“With a wind turbine, they generate for 85-90pc of the time. Once you put a turbine up, the wind is free and it is very efficient.
“If you look at where these MPs are based it is in the tranquil fields of England, and that is where the wind farms need to go.
“The planning system is so messed up, and we cannot give people who have no idea what they are talking about the right to decide on what is best for the wellbeing of the whole country. It is fundamentally wrong.”
Mr Bacon disagreed. He said: “It is a dangerous path to tread to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to decide for themselves, in a democratic country, how we should do that. If localism means anything, it should mean local people having their say.
“Diversity of supply is important, but why this particular strand should be treated like a special case and given these whacking great subsidies, I don’t know.”
An ongoing planning inquiry is being heard in King’s Lynn where campaign groups are battling RES’s plans to build six turbines at Jack’s Lane in Stanhoe, and E.ON’s proposed five-turbine wind farm at neighbouring Chiplow, near Syderstone.
Jonathan Powell, chairman of Creakes Action for Protecting the Environment (CAPE), said: “The letter from Conservative MPs is pleasing. It doesn’t herald an immediate change in government policy, so I don’t think it could be used to help our case right now, but it could help in the future.”
With wind an intermittent commodity, output figures for turbines’ generation are often disputed by campaigners.
According to Renewable UK, the trade association representing the wind industry, a modern turbine produces electricity 70-85pc of the time, but its output varies depending on the strength of the wind.
Over the course of a year, it says the turbine will generate about 30pc of its theoretical maximum output, compared with the average 50pc “load factor” of conventional power stations.
However, it says this variability is evened out across the UK, so the country’s combined wind generation rarely – if ever – goes either completely to zero, or to full output.
Adam Bell, from Renewable UK, said: “It is very clear that we need to reduce the amount of carbon we use and the amount of fossil fuels we burn, in the most cost-effective way possible.
“Although it sounds contradictory, the reason we are supporting onshore wind is because it is the cheapest form of low-carbon energy. If the support was taken away from it, people would have to look for more expensive options and, in the end, that will push up consumers’ bills.”
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