David Cameron today signalled the start of a debate on the future of wind farms – as a row blew up in the coalition over comments from his energy minister that the UK had “enough”.
But wind farm opponents in Wales welcomed John Hayes’ comments as a “small step” in the campaign to stop turbines being built in the countryside.
Mr Hayes was slapped down by his Liberal Democrat superior, Energy Secretary Ed Davey, for comments made to newspapers on how Britain was “peppered” with wind farms.
He said the number of wind turbines in the UK seemed “extraordinary”, adding that wind turbines could no longer be “imposed on communities”.
Before making the comments, he had been told his views were not representative of government policy and should be removed from a speech he made the previous night.
Mr Cameron insisted there has been no change in policy on wind farms – but told the House of Commons that there had to be a “debate” on the future of the technology, once the government’s 2020 green energy targets had been met.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Mr Hayes said: “Even if a minority of what’s in the system is built we are going to reach our 2020 target. I’m saying enough is enough.”
He also said he had commissioned research on the impact of wind turbines on the landscape and whether they drive down house prices.
Supporters of the technology accused the UK Government of being paralysed by the issue and raised fears that Conservative scepticism on the issue may be leaking into government policy.
But Mr Cameron told the Commons: “Let me explain exactly – we have got a big pipeline of onshore and offshore wind projects that are coming through.
“We are committed to those, but frankly all parties are going to have to have a debate in this House and outside this House about what happens once those targets are met.”
Mr Hayes’ intervention comes after the approval of the £365m Pen-y-Cymoedd development between Neath and Aberdare which would generate power to 200,000 homes from 76 turbines.
Statistics from RenewableUK show that there were 13 submissions for wind-based projects in Wales last year, with four sets of plans approved and only one (0.45 MW) application refused.
Glyn Davies, the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire who has campaigned against wind energy projects in the county, said that Mr Hayes’ intervention was not a surprise and that he made similar comments in the House of Commons last week.
Mr Davies said: “I know it is a long-standing view that he [Hayes] has had, and yes he is energy minister, but we also know he cannot just change government policy like that. And it is inevitable that Decc [Department of Energy and Climate Change] and Ed Davey will come forward and say it is not government policy.
“But it is just one small step in the campaign that I – and others – have waged to stop Mid Wales’ being destroyed by these windfarms.”
He said that Mr Hayes’ comments were symptomatic of a wider-held view within the two coalition parties, with “well over 100” backbenchers being wind farm-sceptic.
“There are a huge number of Conservatives that share that view,” Mr Davies said. “And there are Liberal Democrats as well. Look at Roger Williams [Brecon and Radnorshire MP] and Mark Williams [Ceredigion MP] who agree with us and have joined in all the protests. It is not just the Conservatives, there are Liberal Democrats as well.
“But there will be well over 100 backbenchers in the Conservative Party who are completely sceptical of onshore wind.”
Supporters of wind power in the UK reacted with dismay to Mr Hayes’ comments.
Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith said wind power was the cheapest and most developed of the renewable facilities, and that Labour was calling for more wind power and investment in the renewable sector.
“True to form, the government’s energy policy is a total shambles,” he said.
“As the government flounders from one crisis to another, hard-pressed families across the country are left to deal with skyrocketing energy bills and the soaring cost of living.”
Gareth Clubb, director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, said the comments showed the UK Government was in “absolute disarray” over its energy policy.
He said: “The UK Government appears to be paralysed by this issue. Ministers are saying one thing and another is saying another.
“We are seeing the same from George Osborne and now from John Hayes.
“The energy policy that the UK government seems to be looking at options that keep us hooked on gas for the forseeable future.
“That’s not only bad in terms of probably failing to meet climate change targets, but it is the technology of the past.”
Mr Clubb said that the UK’s direction, combined with a “silence” on energy policy from the Welsh Government, meant that Scotland’s renewable energy direction was outstripping the rest of the UK.
He said: “It is symptomatic of a wider view in the Conservative Party – but his comments were interesting.
“Just yesterday John Hayes was at a RenewableUK conference in Glasgow saying one thing, while these comments appear to be in total contradiction.
“It is policy made on the hoof, and there is no strategy about where the UK is going.
“It is a shame that in Wales, we don’t have the power to be making that kind of commitment that they are in Scotland, where they are absolutely forging ahead with an industry providing tens of thousands of jobs, while in Wales we are stuck, ruled by Westminster and Whitehall that seems intent on foisting technologies of the past on us, such as nuclear and fossil fuels.”
Industry leaders also rounded on Mr Hayes’ comments.
Renewable energy umbrella group RenewableUK said it was “shocked and concerned” by Mr Hayes’ comments, which it said came after he addressed 400 industry delegates at its annual conference and gave a speech in favour of renewables.
The organisation said he had called for the need for clarity and certainty in renewables policy to create the right framework for investment.
RenewableUK’s deputy chief executive Maf Smith said: “As the wind industry meets in Glasgow to celebrate the success of this industry, it comes as some surprise that the new Minister has said one thing to us and another to the press.
“We are on the eve of the publication of the Energy Bill, a crucial time for energy policy, with huge investment decisions to be made that will lead to tens of thousands of jobs over the next decade. If we are to see these jobs and investment realised confidence must be retained and that means consistency.”
Dr Tony Whitehead, director of policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), said: “The large investment and long timescales involved in all types of energy generation need consistent, long-term energy policies.
“Short-term uncertainty around UK energy policy, as we have seen in the last couple of days, is very unhelpful and has the potential to result in increased prices for consumers and delay much-needed investment in all forms of energy infrastructure. It can also stop investment in new UK jobs.
“Uncertainty over policy toward one energy source implies uncertainty for all sources. Remarks about wind power also affect gas, nuclear and other investments.
“The UK has the world’s largest offshore wind industry and there is huge potential in terms of investment and future jobs. Several international companies planning investments in the UK recently wrote to the Energy Secretary expressing concern over the emergence of political risk in the UK which has traditionally been regarded as having a low risk for energy investment.”