Member of Parliament, Jonathan Edwards, called a House of Commons debate to discuss energy transmission infrastructure in which he concentrated his contribution on the Brechfa Forest West Connection Project.
Adjournment Debate: 19th November 2013
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): It is a pleasure to open this Adjournment debate on energy transmission infrastructure in my county of Carmarthenshire. In doing so, I am fulfilling two promises, one of which I made to the then Minister on 6 March this year when we debated in Westminster Hall the proposed Brechfa west wind farm application, which he later approved. During the debate, I kindly informed him that I would seek a further debate if he approved the Brechfa west generation development without considering the infrastructure required to connect it to the national grid.
My reading of English planning law is that these matters—generation and transmission developments—should be determined together to help inform a comprehensive picture of the impact of individual energy projects. I said in the aforementioned debate that local people were being hoodwinked by the developers and the UK Government in not processing both together. I regret to inform the House that I share their opinions.
I regret that I have to make a political point so early in my speech, but the Tories in my constituency have only one campaign, and that is to oppose wind turbines. I look forward to reminding the electorate of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in the months ahead that it was a Tory Minister who approved the largest wind farm ever built in Carmarthenshire and who will now be responsible for the 20 metre-high poles that will service the development.
Secondly, I am fulfilling a promise I made to my constituents that I would seek this debate following two public meetings that my constituency colleague, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM, and I held on this issue over the summer in the villages of Pontargothi and Pencader. In those meetings, there was not enough room in the various halls to accommodate those who wished to have their say. This transmission development has generated huge public interest in the north and west of my constituency. I will endeavour this evening to portray the arguments made to us as elected members so that they are now a matter of record.
It will be of little surprise to you, Mr Speaker, to learn that if I had my way these matters would be devolved. Wales is a net exporter of electricity, yet we pay the highest electricity prices of any constituent part of the United Kingdom and, regrettably, we have among the highest levels of fuel poverty. A key element of my party’s social justice programme for reducing energy poverty, therefore, is to obtain control over our energy resources. That is also a key part of our economic vision of moving our country from the bottom of the wealth table. I am glad to report that my colleagues in the Assembly will hold a debate on a votable motion tomorrow in the Senedd.
The electricity grid in Wales resembles our transport system: it moves east to west, moving resources out of Wales. The need for a Welsh grid is of paramount importance.
There is also the issue of democracy. These matters should be decided not by the Whitehall machine, but rather by the democratic institutions closer to the communities of west Wales. The regulatory framework put in place by Ofgem specifies that the only material planning consideration is cost—in other words, the cheapest option. That completely disregards the impact of the development on other key components of the Carmarthenshire economy, primarily agriculture and tourism.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman clearly shares my love of rural Wales and appreciates those things that make our constituencies special. Does he agree that if we really must have these appalling wind farms and transmission lines desecrating rural Wales and our communities, at the very least every single part of those lines should go underground?
Jonathan Edwards: I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was staggered to read in the submission on behalf of the company responsible for the Brechfa west wind farm, RWE npower renewables, that tourism and agriculture were of low economic value to the Carmarthenshire economy. My constituency has more than 1,000 farms, yet multinational companies describe them as of little economic value.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Any assessment of cost should surely be an honest assessment, but as far as I can see, the difficulties caused to the tourism industry in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and certainly to the open air industry, including the mountains and the sea, in my constituency, are entirely disregarded when the cost is assessed.
Jonathan Edwards: My hon. Friend, like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), makes a valid point. We need an holistic assessment of the impact of transmission infrastructure projects on other sectors of the economy that should not be ridden over roughshod by multinational companies.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. We share a constituency border on the River Teifi and he will be aware of the significant growth and potential for growth of the tourism industry in particular. We have experience of some of these schemes in the north of Ceredigion, as opposed to the south, as in the case under discussion. Does he agree that they cause damage to, and are to the detriment of, the tourism industry?
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Indeed, many tourism operators in my constituency believe that developments on this scale are a disincentive for them to invest further in the sector, which has been seen by all levels of government as a key part of our local economy.
Such is the scale of the proposed transmission project that there will be three different consultation processes before a final route is determined. We are currently in the middle of the first two consultation periods. One of the key elements of my submission to the first process was that local people feel that they are being excluded and that the process has not been open and transparent, with only selected organisations and community councils asked to contribute and no full public engagement.
The first consultation period is extremely significant, because following this initial stage the development company, Western Power Distribution, will have chosen a preferred route from four options. All four routes begin in the north of Carmarthenshire near technical advice note area G—which is the Labour Welsh Government’s jargon for the concentrated wind-generating development zone in the Brechfa forest—and terminate at the National Grid substation in Llandyfaelog in the south of the county. That is a connection distance of more than 30 km.
Villages such as Cwmffrwd, Idole and Llandyfaelog more than 20 miles away from Brechfa forest will now find themselves affected by a project many miles away. As I have said, they have been hoodwinked by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the multinational companies building wind farms in the north of the county, because the subsequent transmission project is a fait accompli.
To balance matters out, perhaps I should aim my guns at the Labour Welsh Government as well. They determined the strategic development zones for energy generation. In the case of the Brechfa forest, they did so in the full knowledge that the local electricity grid had insufficient capacity to service the power generated by the new wind farms.
It is no good Labour Welsh Ministers saying, “Nothing to do with us, guvnor”, and pointing the finger at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is a dereliction of duty on their behalf to have selected strategic zones, in the case of Brechfa, so far away from the national grid that this large transmission infrastructure project is now required.
More than 200 people attended the public meetings that I have mentioned. It is fair to say that feelings ran extremely high. The major concern raised with us during those meetings was the visual impact of the poles that will support the overhead cables envisaged by Western Power Distribution. I am not just saying this because I am a native, but because Carmarthenshire is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the entire British Isles.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Gentleman and I share the privilege of representing part of the Brecon Beacons national park. Does he agree that many other parts of his lovely constituency have a landscape equivalent to that of a national park, and that the project will be a huge problem for the quality of such landscapes?
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In areas of outstanding natural beauty, cables will have to go underground, but the Tywi valley, although extremely beautiful, is not designated as such and is therefore exempt, so that point is vital.
Carmarthenshire is known as the garden of Wales for good reason, with the Tywi valley hosting the National Botanic Garden of Wales and Aberglasney gardens, both of which are Welsh national treasures. During the public meetings I held on the issue, it was clear that only undergrounding the cables would be acceptable to those who attended.
That is the position of Carmarthenshire county council, which unanimously supported a Plaid Cymru motion:
“That Carmarthenshire County Council finds it totally unacceptable that the proposed Brechfa Forest wind farm(s) National Grid connection should be made via an overhead line supported by wooden pylons. As the Council itself has no statutory power in this matter, we ask the UK Energy Secretary to ensure that the connection cable is laid underground for its entire length”.
There is a clear precedent for undergrounding in Carmarthenshire. The Llyn Brianne hydroelectricity scheme in the north-east of my constituency was connected to the national grid via 20 miles of undergrounding in 1996.
In a one-sentence reply, the developers have stated that the cost of undergrounding is prohibitive. In this case, however, that is simply not good enough. In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me:
“In 2011, National Grid commissioned an independent study to give more clarity on the practicality, whole life costs and impacts of undergrounding and subsea cabling as alternatives to overhead lines. The Electricity Transmission Costing Study, prepared by technical experts and overseen and endorsed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology was published in January 2012… It contains estimated cost ranges for overhead lines and underground technologies.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 66W.]
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if undergrounding can be done in Powys, it can surely be done in Carmarthenshire? It could be done.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. In Powys, the energy or transmission companies involved have decided to underground parts of the route. As the project is undertaken, I will certainly be making the case that the Tywi valley is protected in a similar manner to those areas of Powys.
That report tells us that cost ratios are volatile and that no single cost ratio comparing overhead line costs with those of another technology, such as undergrounding, adequately conveys the costs of the different technologies on a given project. The use of financial cost comparisons, rather than cost ratios, is thus recommended when making investment decisions.
However, Western Power Distribution, which has been tasked with connecting the wind farms with the national grid, has published only a simple financial cost comparison for the proposed project. It has not published any information on the lifetime costs of the project taking into consideration the installation, repairs and maintenance of the electricity cables and pylons. In its one-page underground survey summary—the only piece of information on undergrounding that has been published—Western Power Distribution states that the costs of underground cables would be £986,000 per kilometre, compared with £100,000 per kilometre for overground cables. I am sure that the Minister will share my constituents’ disappointment at not being provided with a full report that outlines a full consideration of the lifetime costs of the project for both overhead cables on pylons and undergrounding.
The National Grid, to which the electricity will be fed, launched a report in 2012 on its approach to the design and routeing of new electricity transmission lines, which outlines some of the principles that it will apply to its plans. I will quote from it because it applies directly to the communities that the proposed wooden pylons will affect:
“We also have a duty to ‘consider the desirability of preserving amenity’ when undertaking projects which includes impacts on communities, landscape and visual amenity, cultural heritage and ecological resources. To satisfy this duty, we seek to avoid areas which are nationally or internationally designated for their landscape, wildlife or cultural significance, such as National Parks.
We recognise, however, that not all sites that are valued by, and important for, the wellbeing of local communities are included in designated areas. Our approach therefore ensures that we consider all of the potential economic, environmental and social impacts of proposed projects, not just those relating to designated sites.”
National Grid is seemingly taking an holistic approach, but the regulator, Ofgem, and the regional distribution companies appear to be operating on the basis of the cheapest up-front cost.
I will briefly mention other concerns that have been raised with me. Some have raised concerns over the health of the people who live near the overground poles. Others have expressed concern about the impact on wildlife and protected species. Many have expressed the concern that as the generating capacity is developed within the Brechfa forest, the wooden poles will have to be upgraded to metal pylons like those that service the Mynydd y Betws strategic wind farm in the south of my constituency. Some of my constituents are concerned about what will happen to the poles after the 25-year life expectancy of the generating development in the Brechfa forest. Many landowners were extremely angry that the developers had accessed their land without permission. That has caused grave concern to many elderly constituents of mine. There should be strict access protocols and I hope that the Minister will impress that on Western Power Distribution.
I will conclude by quoting the greatest of Welshmen, D. J. Williams, whose love for his milltir sgwâr, the square mile of north Carmarthenshire, was unrivalled and was the basis of his patriotism:
“Os gellir dweud fod hawl ddwyfol i unrhyw beth ar y ddaear, yna gyda’r Cymry y mae’r hawl i dir Cymru, nid gydag unrhyw berson estron, pwy bynnag ydyw ef.”
That was translated by the great Welsh poet, Waldo Williams, as:
“It may be said that there is a divine right to anything on earth, the right over the land of Wales belongs to the Welsh nation, and not to any alien, whoever he be.”
As the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission considers the second part of its work into further powers for Wales, its opinion polling clearly shows that the people of Wales want full control over their natural resources and the exploitation of those resources. I hope that the Minister is mindful of the sentiments that I have expressed this evening when he considers the application in due course. I am more than happy to again extend my invitation to him to visit my constituency. I am sure that he would be awestruck by the beauty of the Tywi valley and I hope that he would gain an appreciation of why preserving that purity is so important to the people of my county.
Diolch yn fawr iawn.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate and on raising this important issue before the House.
The need for and impact of energy network infrastructure is a complex and sensitive matter. I welcome the opportunity to explain why there is a need to upgrade the electricity network, to clarify the approach that is taken in deciding where and how new infrastructure is delivered and to explain how that relates to Carmarthenshire.
The existing electricity network infrastructure is ageing. Much of it dates from the 1950s and 1960s, so considerable investment is needed to replace those assets as well as to expand our networks to accommodate the new generation that we require and to keep the lights on for our constituents and businesses. That is particularly the case where new generation is located far from demand or where the existing infrastructure is insufficient.
Developers of new generation need the reassurance that the network will be delivered in line with their project time scales so that they will be able to generate electricity once their projects are completed. We should recognise that those projects are substantial, long-term investments and that timely network delivery is crucial to their viability.
Before turning to the subject of electricity networks in Carmarthenshire, it might be helpful if I explain the wider approach to deciding on new network infrastructure. Under the current regulatory framework, it is for the network companies to submit proposals for new network infrastructure to the regulator, Ofgem, and relevant planning authorities. The proposals must be based on a well-justified need case such as new generation connections or the maintenance of a safe and secure network.
The network companies also propose routes and types of infrastructure. In doing so they are required to undertake extensive consultation with stakeholders, and make a balanced assessment of the benefits of reducing any adverse environmental and other impacts of new infrastructure against the costs and technical challenges of doing so. Those requirements are set out in their licence obligations under the Electricity Act 1989 to develop economic and efficient networks, and to have regard to the preservation of amenity and the mitigation of effects that their activities could have on the natural beauty of the countryside.
Hywel Williams: Will the Minister assure the House that all alternative means of transmission will invariably be considered—for example, when grounding or “under-seaing” cables, or is it, as I heard candidly from an energy sector specialist that, “They won’t offer undergrounding or under-seaing as a choice because they are just too expensive.”?
Michael Fallon: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I must be careful not to comment on the specific application that lies at the heart of that, but I repeat that in fulfilling their licence obligations companies must not only develop efficient and cost-effective networks but have regard to the preservation of amenity and the mitigation of effects that their activities have on the natural beauty of the countryside. That is the balance they have to strike in their applications.
In addition to legal requirements to consider the wider impacts of new network infrastructure, Ofgem published in July this year information for stakeholders on how that should be taken into account. It clarifies that network companies are required to consider wider impacts and alternative solutions to overhead lines.
That regulatory approach is reinforced by the Government’s energy national policy statements, which set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting to an infrastructure project of national significance. It makes clear—this may help Opposition Members—that cost should not be the only factor in determining the type of network technology used, and that proper consideration should be given to other feasible means of connection, including underground and sub-sea cables. I hope that balanced approach provides some reassurance to those areas potentially affected by cables and pylons that the need for infrastructure is carefully assessed, and that alternatives to new overhead lines are considered seriously.
Since costs and technical difficulties vary so much from project to project, it is important that each is assessed case by case to ensure that the right planning decision is taken each time. The Government consider the costs and benefits of undergrounding electricity lines important issues that need to be considered carefully. That is why my Department arranged for an independent study to provide clarity on the practicality, whole life costs, and impacts of undergrounding and sub-sea cabling, as alternatives to overhead lines. That report was published in January 2012, and its findings are generally consistent with the comparative costs that National Grid quoted when evaluating options on current projects. The report should provide a useful point of reference to inform the planning process.
Let me turn now to the need for, and the development of, network infrastructure in Carmarthenshire. Consent for the Brechfa Forest West wind farm in Carmarthenshire was granted by the Secretary of State in March this year. The application for the electricity network infrastructure in Carmarthenshire to connect the wind farm will be decided by the appropriate planning authorities and Ministers. It would not be appropriate for me to give my views on the particulars of this project. However, I can say that I do recognise that many people feel very strongly about pylons and the impact they can have on the landscape.
Effective consultation with local communities and other interested parties is a vital part of the planning and regulatory approval process. When making proposals for new infrastructure, network companies have to demonstrate that alternatives were considered and why the preferred option is justified. That in turn must show that stakeholders have been engaged effectively. Western Power Distribution, the distribution network operator in Carmarthenshire, has started a consultation process that will continue throughout 2014 to seek views on route options for the wind farm connections. It expects to submit an application for consent to the Planning Inspectorate and it will ultimately be determined by the Secretary of State.
I am encouraged by the greater levels of stakeholder engagement and consideration being given by network companies to alternatives to overhead lines since the new planning framework was introduced. That is exactly the behaviour that the new planning and regulatory frameworks require.
I thank the hon. Members who have participated in what is an important debate. Our challenge is to build a low-carbon economy based on a mix of energy sources that meet our environmental targets and our security of supply needs, and do so in a way that delivers value for money for our consumers.
Meeting our future energy needs will require the expansion of our electricity network. Deciding where and how this infrastructure is delivered requires informed and balanced consideration of a number of factors, including costs, environmental impact, and the needs of local communities and the country as a whole. The planning and regulatory approval processes for new electricity network infrastructure require that stakeholders are consulted properly on these important decisions and that their views are demonstrably taken into account. This is now due to happen in Carmarthenshire where Western Power Distribution is consulting stakeholders in developing its proposals, and I strongly encourage all those with an interest now to engage with Western Power Distribution in this process.
Question put and agreed to.