10. Short Debate: The impact of renewable energy infrastructure on rural communities

– in the Senedd at 6:28 pm on 17 April 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:28, 17 April 2024

(Translated)

That concludes voting, but does not conclude our work for today, because there will be a short debate, and that short debate is by James Evans.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

If Members can leave the Chamber quietly, then James can commence his short debate.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative

Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to give a minute of my time to Cefin Campbell, Russell George, Sam Kurtz, Janet Finch-Saunders and Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Today, I want to discuss the impact of renewable energy infrastructure on our rural communities in Wales. Wales is known for its breathtaking landscapes, rolling hills, charming villages and its sense of peace. This beauty attracts thousands of tourists each year, and it's a vital part of our rural economy. However, large-scale windfarms and their pylons threaten this. While renewable energy is crucial, we can't ignore the potential harm that these projects can inflict on the very communities they're supposed to help. Imagine this: you wake up to the consistent sound of a hum of a turbine blade. Some residents have described this sound as similar to a plane consistently being overhead. This isn't science fiction, it is the reality for many living near windfarms. Studies show that wind turbines can disrupt sleep and concentration with low-frequency noise. These colossal structures also alter the visual landscape, potentially impacting tourism and residents' sense of place. This is particularly concerning for areas that rely on scenic beauty, like some of the proposed areas for turbines and pylons in my constituency in Brecon and Radnorshire. Furthermore, the colossal size of these structures can cast long shadows, unsettling shadows—a phenomenon known as shadow flicker—further disrupting the peacefulness of rural areas.

(Translated)

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 6:30, 17 April 2024

Large-scale renewable projects can drastically change the character of the countryside. A study found statistically significant negative impact on property values near onshore windfarms. While some landholders benefit from leasing land, a decline in property values can have a ripple effect on the entire community. With one in seven jobs in Wales dependent on tourism, this sector is a major contributor to the rural economy. Tourism is key in many rural parts of Wales, providing much-needed jobs, supplementing farm incomes and bringing spend in communities that keep businesses viable. When the draw for tourists is the natural beauty and aesthetics and the tranquillity, it is clear that large-scale wind turbine developments and pylons will adversely affect and impact these areas. It will impact jobs and local businesses and all those industries associated in the rural economy.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is the feeling of voicelessness amongst residents. Many communities fear that they have little say in the decision-making process surrounding windfarm development. Consultations, if they happen at all, can often feel like a mere formality. A 2023 BBC investigation revealed numerous instances where residents felt their concerns about noise, aesthetics and potential health impacts were disregarded. With any such infrastructure projects, there are statutory planning processes to follow. I had hoped that this would be a significant safeguard, but I have my doubts, and I give you the example of Hendy windfarm: the final decision was taken by Welsh Government Ministers under the development of national significance process. It ignored local community feedback, county councillor representations and the basic principles of 'Planning Policy Wales'. It even disregarded the recommendations from Planning and Environment Decisions Wales officers from within the Welsh Government. All that pain for the community. And despite it being constructed in 2021, the site is still not operational and it is not generating any electricity. If the developers believe that their plans are appropriate for the area, then why not let the local planning processing run its due course? By classifying these developments as developments of national significance and giving Welsh Ministers the final say, this averts a well-established planning procedure in local authorities that has the necessary safeguards in place to ensure communities are protected from large corporate interests. As the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales has said, they are concerned for communities who are battling against big corporates like David and Goliath.

When it comes to pylon infrastructure, 'Planning Policy Wales' clearly states that, where possible, the preferred option is for undergrounding of cables, yet in many developments, we are told this is simply not financially viable. All these developments should be designed, in the first instance, to comply with 'Planning Policy Wales'. They cannot use costs as an excuse to circumvent the planning policies here in Wales, and I think Welsh Ministers need to be a lot stronger in following their own Government's guidance that's set out in planning law.

Many communities are also promised the benefits by these developments. These range from funding to local amenities to direct payments to individuals and to the community receiving electricity generated directly from those developments. So, in theory, some will benefit, others will lose out. But let us remember, these are big corporate interests, big business, and what's being offered will be in no doubt dwarfed by the big returns for shareholders and the potential export of the energy generated. Developers can simply not come into our country and think they can buy up rural Wales. It's simply not happening. If a mining operation came into Wales and any community offering vast sums of money to locals in return for desecrating the countryside, there would rightly be outcry from every political party in this Chamber, yet in our race to net zero, the same is allowed for renewables. When the damage caused by their construction, from the concrete needed for bases, the materials needed to build temporary roads on pristine upland areas, going into rivers to create other roads, which are currently being protected by the Welsh Government—all this stuff is rarely given consideration, and planning is granted anyway, against policy.

In a recent report to the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, it was cited that offshore projects contribute more than £6.5 million a year to the Welsh communities, but I'd like to know where. They say examples include landowner payments, supporting rural diversification, but many farmers have done this already, creating holiday lets, only to have the rug pulled under them from this Welsh Labour Government. Other benefits include business rates over the lifetime of the project, or habitat restoration, yet these are incurred because of the activities that they're undertaking. As one constituent summed it up to me at a consultation event recently, 'This all means absolutely nothing to me.'

Job creation is also mentioned on various fronts, but in practice it's rarely seen. There may be some local employment in the construction phase, but beyond that, the work dries up. As well as citing job creation, there should be consideration given to the job losses as a result. I've already mentioned the hit to tourism and how many jobs we lost through the loss of our farmland, tourism and all the associated trades. That is never taken into account when we discuss these applications. 

I do want to see local residents see tangible benefits, but the current model falls short in this regard. This doesn't mean abandoning renewable energy altogether. We need modern solutions to fight climate change, and wind power offers a clean alternative. However, responsible development is key, setting stricter noise emission limits, ensuring turbines are placed further away from homes, and offering more robust community consultation at critical steps in what needs to be taken forward. Exploring more offshore options for development: sustainable solutions also need to consider the times when the wind doesn't blow and also the sun doesn't shine. For that reason, a sustainable energy mix, we must also include hydro schemes and more nuclear power stations across our country. The Welsh Government's own analysis indicates that onshore wind projects will contribute less to the meeting of the 100 per cent target by 2035, but there's a better solution within reach. Just one—just one—additional offshore wind lease in the Irish sea, similar to the successful Mona project, could generate as much clean energy as all the proposed onshore wind developments combined. By working together with the UK Government to secure the lease with the Crown Estate swiftly, we could achieve in Wales our 100 per cent renewable target set by 2035. This collaborative approach would allow us to avoid vast amounts of infrastructure disrupting our beautiful landscapes for generations to come.

Windfarms can be a powerful tool in our fight for a sustainable future, but that cannot be at the expense of rural communities. I have several proposed developments, as I've said earlier, in my constituency, and I'm opposing them because of the concerns I have raised here today. Let us embrace renewable energy, but it has to be done in a way that respects people and the places that are the stewards of our beautiful countryside. It is our job here in this Senedd to protect rural Wales and its interests, and I hope the Welsh Government won't sacrifice my communities and the communities of rural Wales on its road to net zero. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:38, 17 April 2024

James has kindly given five speakers one minute each to conclude the time. Cefin Campbell.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you, James, for giving me a minute, although I should possibly want 10, but I'm just going to stick to the time.

Plaid Cymru have no objection to onshore renewable projects. However, we have to ask questions about the scale and the size of some of these windfarms that are being proposed. But my main concern is the fact that many of these klondike companies moving in as some kind of green rush at the moment are proposing to build pylons criss-crossing the whole of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, and so many campaign groups—and I met one last week in Llandovery—are opposed to the desecration of our wonderful landscape. And as it happens, a week today I went to see a demonstration in Llanybydder of a company based in west Wales who are very successful in Europe in terms of cable ploughing. So, rather than the pylons going across the land, these cables are able to be put underground with very little impact on the environment, and put back in this place without you actually seeing any difference being made.

So, that's the way forward, and I'm asking the Minister whether she would do a cost-benefit analysis, comparing pylons with undergrounding. And she has promised to do that, so I'd just like to ask when we can get that report. Sorry, I'm looking at the wrong Minister; I beg your pardon.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 6:40, 17 April 2024

Can I thank James Evans for bringing forward this short debate? And I agree with everything James has said, and very much welcome Cefin Campbell's comments as well. For many years, or certainly since I've been a Member of this Senedd, I've had long-held views in terms of the over-proliferation of wind turbines in one particular area of Wales. I'm not against a single turbine. I'm not against windfarms where they're appropriately located, but I am against the over-proliferation of windfarms, with hundreds of turbines, with, as Cefin Campbell, the zigzagging of infrastructure across the beautiful mid Wales countryside, where that is needed. We need our beautiful countryside: it's our unique selling point in regard to tourism in mid Wales.

But I'd very much pick up on what James Evans has said in regard to planning policy, because Ministers have said on a frequent basis that the Welsh Government policy is that there should be underground not overground transmission. But that doesn't actually translate into Government guidance. So, I hope that the Minister can really clarify that, when Ministers make that statement, that it is backed up policy, because it doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. 

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 6:41, 17 April 2024

I'm grateful to the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for giving me a minute of his time. And to develop the point around infrastructure that he and Russell George and Cefin Campbell have made, in Hundleton, we have the opportunity with the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. And the onshoring of the cabling and infrastructure is causing concerns to the community, who rightfully welcome the opportunity that the Celtic sea brings, but think, 'Let's think rationally, let's not dig up one road for six months to lay one cable for one project, and then, within six months, dig that same road up again for the next project. Let's think holistically how we can bring that offshore infrastructure onshore in a sustainable and sensible way that allows the community to continue with their day-to-day lives without the disruption that that brings, and also to then unlock the opportunity that the Celtic sea brings as well.' So, hopefully, the Welsh Government, in terms of the secondary infrastructure around renewables, can offer some clarity to a community like Hundleton and the excellent county councillor, Steve Alderman, there.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 6:42, 17 April 2024

Again, I thank James for bringing this really important debate forward. We do have a real problem in our rural communities, and, as has been mentioned, in terms of the tourism values for communities where that is their only industry. We know the Welsh grid needs modernising, and that we have very poor or little infrastructure in Wales. And it must be extended. But have we not an opportunity here to create a network that is sustainable and manageable? We the Welsh Conservatives actively endorse the goal of achieving 100 per cent renewable electricity generation in Wales. However, we also believe this objective should be pursued without resulting to the most basic option. Pylons criss-crossing land in this day and age—we can fly man to the moon, and woman to the moon, but we're talking about going backwards in terms of putting pylons. 

Indeed, the most comprehensive cost comparisons of pylons versus undergrounding is actually based on a 2012 report. Whilst the report found the cost of installing new power connections underground is always more expensive than installing overhead lines, that finding may no longer be valid. So, I believe in what Cefin Campbell said as well, and Sam Kurtz, that given technological advancements since 2012, including techniques like cable ploughing, urgent action is needed by the Welsh Government now to determine if undergrounding new electricity lines is more costly, and by how much, than using pylons.

So, I would ask the new Cabinet Secretary—and we've seen a fresher approach from the new Minister for transport than we've had before, and the tone—. I have every confidence in you now, Minister, that you will actually, now, perhaps be able to give us some reassuring news here today. Diolch. 

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 6:44, 17 April 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn. I'm grateful to James for bringing forward this debate. Planning is important here. We need to be able to control the scale of developments. We absolutely have to say 'yes' to undergrounding of cables, but it has to be more than just planning and deciding which pylon goes here or which wind turbine can go there; it has to be about why something is being proposed. Who is benefiting from it? Is it the community itself that's benefiting from a particular development or the multinational companies who are extracting profits from our communities? In my constituency it's solar that's the problem; thousands of acres in danger of being covered over in solar panels. I love solar—I've got my own panels—but there is a better way of doing it than losing farmland. We could be keeping the profits locally. That is so important. We have huge potential in renewables, but it has to be on our terms.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:45, 17 April 2024

Congratulations to Rhun, who actually kept within the minute.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

(Translated)

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language to reply to the debate—Jeremy Miles.

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour

Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd, and can I thank James Evans for bringing this debate and for colleagues who gave us five instalments of Just a Minute, without any hesitation, repetition or deviation? It's a pleasure to respond to this debate as the Minister responsible for the economy and energy, and with apologies to those colleagues who are hoping for a response from Julie James, I think.

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 6:46, 17 April 2024

(Translated)

We all understand that we need to move to a low-carbon energy system if we are to achieve our net-zero targets. We've also been clear that we want to see the profits and benefits remaining in Wales in order to ensure that transition is fair and that it strengthens the economy, creates jobs, and supports social change in our communities.

Energy is crucial to our economy, and I look forward to publishing the details of my priorities for the economy over the next few days. As a Government, we are committed to improving the well-being of future generations across the whole of Wales, including in our rural communities. I want to take this opportunity, therefore, to highlight what's already been done and to announce what we will be doing in future in the area of renewable energy.

We have set ambitious targets in terms of renewable energy in Wales. They will ensure that our communities have affordable energy that is clean in the long term, and that there will be economic opportunities from the great investments made here in Wales.

The former climate change Minister set the following targets: that 100 per cent of the electricity that we use every year is renewable by 2035 and that at least 1.5 GW of the capacity of renewable energy is in local hands by 2035.

Our 'Future Energy Grids for Wales' report shows that demand for energy in 2050 in Wales will be three times as much as it is today, and therefore we need to plan now to meet the future needs of our economy and the broader needs of Wales in the future. We need to strengthen the electricity network in order for communities across Wales to be able to use low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps, solar panels and electric vehicles. We also need to link renewable energy projects together. That means that we need to transform the energy system and to do so very quickly.

Transforming to a smart flexible system that uses renewable energy will not only reduce emissions in the energy sector but will also assist in decarbonising the whole economy and will create opportunities for Wales to retain that wealth in its local communities.

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 6:48, 17 April 2024

In 2020, the Welsh Government published our policy statement on local ownership of energy generation, which included definitions of local ownership, shared ownership and community ownership. We published guidance for developers and stakeholders and decision makers on how to meet our expectations, including in relation to transparency and participation of all stakeholders. We also announced that we would be joining the sector in setting up a renewable developer on behalf of the people of Wales in Trydan Gwyrdd Cymru.

Looking ahead, we know we have more work to do to work with industry to retain more value in Wales as we work to meet our renewable energy targets. Building on the work from the renewable energy deep-dive, I want to work with—

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 6:47, 17 April 2024

Minister, could I make an intervention? You mentioned a moment ago that you'll set up the energy company here for Wales. Can you confirm or deny here today whether you've had any conversations with Green GEN Cymru or Bute Energy about taking over any of their products into public ownership?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 6:49, 17 April 2024

I'm not able to confirm that. I don't have that information. Building on the work from the renewable energy deep-dive, I want to work with industry on a sector deal. A sector deal will clarify how this Government will support industry to deliver on our targets while setting out how new investment will benefit Wales. I want to work on removing barriers to retaining benefit and value in Wales and to make sure that Wales is an even more attractive place for new investment. A key barrier to new investment is grid. Upgrading Wales's grid is essential if we are to have an energy system fit for purpose in the long term, and this necessitates new infrastructure for energy networks. The 'Future Energy Grids for Wales' report provided a top-down overview of the pathways that need to be planned, developed, integrated and put into action in order for the energy system in Wales to meet our net-zero targets. It emphasised the need for us to ensure we are renewing, reviewing and planning our energy system on a whole-system basis, considering the strategic development of infrastructure. But we also need to work from the bottom up to understand the local needs and opportunities that a low carbon energy system can bring.

I'm pleased to confirm today that Welsh Government-funded work to create local area energy plans is now reaching the final phases of development. The 22 plans, drafted by local authorities in Wales, are currently being finalised, and these will shortly be taken forward into four regional energy plans and then into a national energy plan for Wales by the end of this year. This work is providing the evidence to develop an optimised system that will use the minimum level of infrastructure to operate efficiently and meet our electricity needs. While energy networks in Wales are part of the UK-wide system and the UK Government decides how it's planned and funded, the Welsh Government is using the levers available to us through planning and our ability to work directly with Ofgem and the network operators to ensure that our requirements are reflected in the UK-wide plans.

I recognise that renewable energy and connecting infrastructure proposals, and, in particular, as discussed today, the resulting landscape change, can, of course, be controversial and they require careful consideration. I want to assure you that the planning process for the determination of such projects is rigorous, robust, transparent, and, critically, affords opportunities for extensive examination of the issues raised by local communities. We understand and appreciate that communities near emerging development proposals, especially where proposals are for large-scale schemes such as windfarms and transmission infrastructure, can be seriously concerned by the scale and the nature of these schemes. Communities will be heard and decisions will be made balancing the climate emergency and the needs of communities for the long term, ensuring that projects for today are built for future generations as well.

We've previously committed to setting out clearly the Welsh Government's expectation for the transmission network, which will be based on a strong evidence base that reflects the future needs of Wales's economy, our environment and communities and we start from the presumption that grid should be underground wherever possible to reduce visual impact. We've committed to working with representatives of all sectors and regions of Wales to develop a set of principles for grid development and these will be founded on the framework of the well-being of future generations Act. They'll address community requirements, environmental impact, visual impairment and cost, and will be integrated into 'Planning Policy Wales' as they're developed. This will ensure that proposals for new electricity lines would need to meet these principles if they are to be supported by the Welsh Government.

I'm pleased to announce as well that we are well under way in the work of convening an independent advisory group on future electricity grid for Wales. This group will take forward the essential work to build an understanding of the possible approaches to delivering electricity transmission infrastructure—[Interruption.]

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 6:53, 17 April 2024

Thank you. I'm really pleased to hear about that group you talked about, but will that include the likes of people who care for the countryside, such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales? Will they be involved in that group—people who are willing to be able to put across their views in terms of their concerns about how large-scale infrastructure will impact the countryside?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 6:54, 17 April 2024

So, what the group needs to do is to help us build that understanding of the impact of the various options, taking the full extent of those impacts into account and building that deeper understanding of the possible alternatives, the possible approaches, to how we can deliver on that and devising a set of principles that will provide that basis and then drawing on that and an evidence base to support those principles. And through this approach, we will champion Wales having the infrastructure that we need for the future, but delivered in the right place and in a way that minimises cost to the public, but also protecting the environment for the future.

This is going to allow us to gain further evidence to understand the options available to deliver on our targets. There are difficult issues to balance along the way, but I'm committed to ensuring that we are able to make the most of the opportunities from clean energy, and I hope James Evans is assured that rural Wales is very much at the forefront of our thinking. We'll be looking to our rural communities to have an open dialogue on opportunities for the future, making sure the skills that we need are available in those local communities and that our supply chain can benefit in the long term from these projects, and ensuring, by doing so, a just transition.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:55, 17 April 2024

(Translated)

I thank the Cabinet Secretary and that brings today's proceedings to a close.

(Translated)

The meeting ended at 18:55.