The Government appeared in disarray over its wind farm policy last night after the Energy Minister and the Prime Minister clashed over the development of new turbines.
Conservative Energy Minister John Hayes said it was "extraordinary" that wind turbines had been allowed "to be peppered around the country without due regard for the interests of the local community or their wishes".
But his words earned a public rebuke from his boss, Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey, before David Cameron weighed into the row, insisting the Government's policy remained unchanged but that there should be a "debate" on the issue.
Mr Hayes' comments were initially welcomed in the Westcountry, which has been on the frontline of the debate over the controversial technology.
But hope turned to confusion as frantic efforts by the Lib Dem coalition partners attempted to stamp on his views. Caroline Harvey, secretary of the Two Moors Campaign which has been fighting applications for four wind farms just south of Exmoor National Park, said of Mr Hayes: "At last someone is speaking out.
"These things are still being foisted on local populations despite the express wishes of the Government."
She added: "All these things wouldn't be so bad if at the end of the day the turbines were going to do some good, but they won't.
"They harm the environment and they harm people living near them for absolutely no benefit whatsoever."
More than 20 years ago, the country's first commercial wind farm was installed near Delabole in North Cornwall. In the following years, dozens of wind farms have been proposed, prompting an often polarised debate over subsidies, their ability to generate electricity and their environmental credentials.
There are now nine, large scale wind farms in Cornwall and one in Devon with dozens of small scale developments. Other projects are still in the planning process.
Regen SW was set up to help develop the renewable energy industry in the region. Its chief executive Merlin Hyman said wind energy still had an important role to play in future although new projects were likely to be smaller and community led.
But he said Mr Hayes's comments were "irresponsible" and only served to undermine confidence in the wider renewables industry.
"The Tory party clearly feels it needs to play to its base," Mr Hyman said. "That is a very irresponsible way to behave in Government.
"We are looking at the future of energy and there are some very big decisions to make in terms of how we go forward.
"We are going to need private sector investment and those investors are going to need a clear, consistent Government policy."
Mr Hayes was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron in last month's reshuffle. The Tory energy minister had been ordered not to deliver the remarks in a speech on Tuesday night but they were obtained instead for publication by newspapers.
In comments apparently cut from a draft of Mr Hayes's speech, he said: "We can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities. I can't single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.
"We have issued a call for evidence on wind. That is about cost but also about community buy-in.
"We need to understand communities' genuine desires. We will form our policy in the future on the basis of that, not on a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective."
He added: "If you look at what has been built, what has consent and what is in the planning system, much of it will not get through and will be rejected. 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."
At Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron told MPs: "There has been no change towards renewable energy.
"Let me explain – we have got a big pipeline of onshore and offshore wind projects that are coming through. We are committed to those, but all parties are going to have to have a debate in this House and outside about what happens once those targets are met."
Landscape ‘has become a pincushion’
Opposition to onshore wind farms has little to do with Nimbyism and more to do with protecting our countryside, says Robin Hogg, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in Devon.
CPRE Devon fully supports renewable energy that is efficient, contributes to keeping the lights on, reduces carbon emissions and does not despoil the countryside in the process. The reality has proved to be very different. Both landowners and farmers understandably see an opportunity to farm the lavish government subsidies that are paid for the generation of renewables, and who can blame them?
In this dash for subsidies we have faced a tsunami of planning applications, for both wind turbines and solar panels, that threatens to overwhelm local planning authorities. It has certainly produced a storm of help requests to CPRE Devon from worried citizens who suddenly find their homes threatened by wind turbine blight or their tourist businesses jeopardised by huge changes to the pristine landscape on which they depend.
CPRE Devon’s view has always been to assess each planning application on its merits. We are not a Nimby organisation and we have made no comment either way on numerous small applications that clearly have a real benefit to the farmer or home owner. We do challenge large scale wind farms or huge turbine applications which threaten the landscape, produce unwelcome and potentially dangerous noise and endanger the ecology of the proposed site.
Initially, the appearance of these wind turbines was generally accepted as a “good idea” by many of the people uninvolved, but the cumulative effect of more and more of these turbines is turning Devon and Cornwall into a pincushion, where the value of some people’s houses has been reduced to the extent that councils have started to lower the council tax band of those who are badly affected.
It would be different if these devices made a real contribution to our national requirement to keep the lights on. It is common knowledge that they are intermittent, and the difficulties in feeding their energy into the National Grid reduce much of the potential that wind energy might have. Were the true costs of this energy to be identified on our electricity bills, many citizens would say enough is enough and demand either a reduction in these subsidies or an end to wind turbine installations.
Recognising their growing unpopularity, developers are now promoting “community wind turbine projects”. These are often little more than an investment opportunity for those who can afford it, with the turbine blight being outsourced to others in the neighbourhood.
As more and more of these turbines appear, the communities affected are combining to oppose them on grounds that have little to do with pure Nimbyism. Many see these unwelcome structures ruining our landscape and a way of life prized by locals and visitors. They question whether this is a price worth paying for a form of “green energy” that might sound good but in reality makes an inefficient and insignificant contribution to our energy needs.
Government must overcome its differences to give a clear policy
Energy Minister John Hayes is misreading the public mood regarding wind farms, argues Merlin Hyman, chief executive of renewable energy agency Regen SW, who says what is needed is investment and more consultation on how communities can benefit from wind power.
Developing new energy generation is about long term investments.
As we face up to some tough decisions on where we get our energy from in the future, the first duty of government is to provide a clear and consistent policy framework against which investment decisions on energy infrastructure can be made.
The split within the coalition on the role of wind power is, therefore, unhelpful as it creates uncertainty and added risk for investors. This translates eventually to higher energy costs.
In attacking wind power John Hayes, the energy minister, is misreading the public mood. As recently as October 23, a poll for the Sunday Times found 55% of people think we should be trying to use more wind power compared to 40% for nuclear and 32% support for shale gas.
This is in line with the experience I find talking to communities across the Westcountry.
In an uncertain world, most people recognise it is simply common sense to make the most of the excellent natural wind and other renewable energy resources we have here in the region, rather than relying on fossil fuels from uncertain parts of the world. Volatile fossil fuel bills are costing us dearly, between 2004 and 2010 dual fuel bills rose by £455, of which £382 was due to soaring gas prices.
Indeed, many communities, such as Totnes and Ladock, are actively involved in developing wind power and providing local revenue streams. Regen’s Communities for Renewables initiative is supporting more to develop their own plans. Cornwall Council is also developing schemes on its own land. This will help some of the £1 billion Cornwall spends on energy be reinvested locally.
The Government’s actual policies to develop renewables are broadly sensible and, despite all the noise, have not changed. Wind power receives the lowest subsidy of any renewable electricity technology and this will, rightly, drop further over the coming months. Government policy recognises that wind power is a mature technology that is now playing a significant role in a diversified mix of electricity generation.
The government is now consulting on how to ensure communities benefit more from wind turbines – again this is right and overdue. I have been asked to sit on an advisory group to support this work and will be pressing for support for local communities that want to generate renewable energy.
Next week the Government will announce some key decisions in its new Energy Bill on how it will encourage investment in low carbon energy technology. It is important that the coalition overcomes its differences and provides the transparent, long term policy framework we need. With this in place we have in the region great companies, skilled people and engaged communities who, together, can develop the clean, secure, renewable energy we need for the future.