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Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)

4. asked the Minister of the Environment how many applications for wind turbines have been submitted in the last year. (AQO 1696/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood

I thank the Member for his question. In 2010-11, 639 planning applications for wind turbines were received: 620 for single wind turbines and 19 for wind farms. The figures for the last quarter have yet to be fully updated, but, in the nine months between April and December last year, there were 500 applications for single wind turbines and 29 for wind farms.

Those figures do not take into account other renewable energy-related applications for anaerobic digesters and other such opportunities. However, despite the English Government’s indication in the papers yesterday, the scale of those figures in the preceding year and up to December of last year demonstrate, in my view, that renewable energy remains the biggest economic opportunity for this island and for the North.

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Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)

Can the Minister tell the House how many of those multiple applications are based in the Sperrins region? Can he break it down that way?

Photo of Alex Attwood

I will be able to break it down like that but not right at this moment. I will come back to the Member.

Behind that question lies the point that the Sperrins has been the test bed for renewable wind applications in Northern Ireland. If you look at a map of wind farm and wind turbine applications, you will see that the greatest concentration of applications and approvals is in the Sperrins area. As opportunities for wind farms spread to the east and as opportunities for offshore begin to develop at the end of this calendar year, we need to learn from that experience in order to ensure that every reasonable opportunity is grasped in a way that local communities can live with, that does not compromise the natural beauty and that will see this opportunity rolled out to the people of the North.

Our Governments are beginning to grasp the fact that, when it comes to wind, wave and tide — and geothermal, as we will learn in the near future — there are opportunities for this island to become self-sufficient in electricity supplies and to become a net exporter of electricity over the next 10 or 20 years. Our Governments need to grasp that idea more fully going forward.

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Tom Elliott (UUP)

Does the Minister accept that there has been a lack of preparation by the Department for the significant number of renewable energy applications, including wind turbines and anaerobic digesters?

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I concur with the broad sentiment of the question. That is why, last autumn, I instructed the head of planning and our senior management team to conduct training at all divisional levels in the North to ensure that the spike in individual wind turbine applications was managed in an expedient fashion and that we had the capacity and knowledge in each development office to ensure that applications were dealt with in an expedient way. Given the surge in individual applications, I accept the point that there was a need to make up for some lost ground in the management of those applications and to have the skills and capacity in local offices to do that.

Similarly, as there are now over 70 applications for anaerobic digesters in the planning system, we have gathered together in the past number of weeks the major agents making applications on behalf of individual farmers and others to ensure that our planning system is better fit for the challenge of managing AD applications as they roll forward. The same will be true for offshore wind farm applications on the far side of the licensing round. The licensing round will conclude in the autumn, and we need to have the capacity to manage any forthcoming applications, not least because offshore wind is of better quality than onshore wind. However, I have to say to Members that, unless our national grid is sufficiently broad to connect renewable opportunities to the grid, we may have a situation in which planning applications are submitted and approved but opportunities to build do not arise because there is no connection to the national grid. Members will have read in the papers this morning that there may be some further developments this week in that regard.

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Steven Agnew (Green)

Is the Minister aware of the research by the Fermanagh Trust into the community benefit from wind farms? Does he see a role for Planning Service and, more broadly, his Department in ensuring that communities get benefit from wind farm developments in their area?

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I am aware of the Fermanagh Trust’s publication. Indeed, I have arranged to meet the trust to interrogate further its conclusions. Furthermore, I have met officials in the Department to assess how to optimise community benefit and opportunities from renewable applications. However, we may have a different context and environment from that which exists in, for example, Scotland, where there is a very advanced model of community benefit and where, as part of the planning process, opportunities, moneys or resources are allocated to local communities as a consequence or in parallel with a renewable application. The character of the rural community in Scotland is not the same as that in Northern Ireland. The rural community there tends to be concentrated in hamlets and villages, whereas the rural community here is much more dispersed, as Members know. Consequently, it may be the case at the moment that individual landowners, householders and farmers are entering into local arrangements for adjacent planning applications for renewables. I want to see greater cohesion around the principle of community benefit, and the Department and I are looking at that. However, we may end up with a different conclusion from that which prevails in Scotland.