The UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, has now published National Policy Statements (NPS) outlining the government policy on energy. They consist of guidance to the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) which, from next March, is due to grant or refuse planning permission on major energy and transport infrastructure projects. The statements are area a mixed bag – good on renewables, nuclear and electricity networks, but less good on coal.
Delay in getting planning permission is the major barrier to infrastructure development in the UK. The Labour government has set up the IPC to try to speed up the planning process, promising that all decisions will be made within a year. This is desirable for renewables, nuclear power, energy grid expansion and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS). However, the IPC will also be responsible for things that are neither desirable nor necessary – airport and road expansion, and coal without full CCS. The Conservatives have said that, if they win the general election next year, they will turn the IPC into an advisory body, with the decision taken by a government minister. The IPC was set up by an act of parliament, so the Conservatives would have to pass a further act to achieve this, which will inevitably cause further delay. They have also said that the minister will have a time limit to take the decision after he or she has had advice from the IPC. Whether this will make any practical difference is open to question:
“In fact, a three-month limit already exists in the Planning Act 2008, although few believe that the mere act of setting such a limit will mean it is met.”
Of course, it is also uncertain whether the promise that the IPC will deliver decisions within a year will be kept.
The existing land-use planning system is far from perfect. Controversial issues go to Public Inquiries, which last months or even years, and basically just give more influence to individuals or organisations with lots of money to spare. Many Public Inquiries cover national policy issues as well as project or site-specific ones. They are not supposed to do this, but they do. The IPC is intended to focus on project-specific issues, with the NPS providing the policy framework. This is a good approach, and will be strengthened if the NPS are clearly supported by parliament. Labour has said that if a parliamentary committee recommends that a debate should be held on a draft NPS, it will hold a debate. Debates and votes should be held, so that the IPC can only take decisions (or provide advice to a Conservative government) based on a framework that has been specifically approved by parliament. The Conservatives support the policy statements, so there would not be a serious danger of them failing to be passed.
In the NPS, there are some strong statements about the biodiversity benefits of renewables:
- “It is particularly important that the Government’s policies to protect biodiversity are viewed in the context of the challenge of climate change: failure to address this challenge will result in significant harm to biodiversity.”
- “Evidence from existing offshore wind farms demonstrates that it has been possible to locate wind farms in ecologically sensitive areas in some circumstances where careful siting of turbines has been undertaken following appropriate ecological surveys and assessments.”
- “The presence of wind turbines can also have positive benefits to ecology and biodiversity.”
However, there is an unhelpful line about the green belt – the area around existing cities and towns that is protected from new developments:
“When located in the green belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise of inappropriate development, which may impact on the openness of the green belt. Careful consideration will therefore need to be given to the visual impact of projects, and developers will need to demonstrate very special circumstances that clearly outweigh any harm by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm if projects are to proceed.”
However, it does go on to recognise that:
“… such very special circumstances may include the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources.”
The government has selected ten sites, all at existing or previous nuclear plants, for the IPC to consider. One site, Dungeness on the south coast of England, has been ruled out, because of the potential impact on protected wildlife and habitats. The change from Public Inquiries considering policy as well as projects is essential to getting nuclear plants built in England and Wales (the Scottish government remains anti-nuclear). The most recent nuclear reactor built in Britain, Sizewell B, was given planning permission only after a four year inquiry.
The other essential element in getting new nuclear stations built is public financial support. This is not part of the IPC role, so was not part of the NPS, but was unsurprisingly part of the political and media debate that followed. Labour and the Conservatives have both said that there will be no public subsidy for nuclear. However, it is not clear exactly what they define as ‘subsidy’. Many commentators, and the nuclear industry itself, argue that what is needed is a strong carbon price, for example, though the EU Emissions Trading Scheme or a carbon tax. The effect of this would be to increase electricity bills. This does not, technically, count as a subsidy, as the nuclear industry is not receiving public grants. However, it will only happen if the government intervenes strongly in the market, to the benefit of the nuclear industry and other low-carbon options. There isn’t time for a long debate about what is and isn’t ‘subsidy’. It is much better to be open about the fact that all the low-carbon electricity options will be more expensive than high-carbon coal generation and that this is a price that must be paid, for climate and energy security reasons. Miliband is good on this and has said that energy companies will be required to have tariffs that protect those who need to use a lot of fuel and have little income.
Another major barrier to renewables in the UK is the absence of sufficient electricity grid capacity. This is particularly true in Scotland (not covered by the IPC) and Wales. The Welsh Assembly government has identified several sites in mid-Wales where it thinks wind farms should be developed. Wales has a strong electricity grid along the north and south coasts, but nothing in the middle. Opponents of grid expansion mainly use the visual impact, and it has to be admitted that pylons and cable are not beautiful. The cables can be put underground, but this is much more expensive and not without visual impact, since little will grow on top of them, so there will be a visible scar if there are hills or mountains nearby. An NPS on electricity networks is good in making this clear:
“In considering whether lines should be placed underground to obtain the benefits of reductions in landscape and/or visual impacts, the IPC will need to balance those reductions in visual intrusion against the costs (economic, environmental and social) and technical challenges of undergrounding …The IPC should take into account that the cost of undergrounding electricity cables is between ten and twenty times as much per unit length as for an overhead line … Maintenance and repair costs are also significantly higher than for overhead lines, as are the costs associated with any later uprating.”
In his speech in Parliament launching the documents, Ed Miliband said that “there will be no new coal without CCS”. The document itself says that:
“… it is Government policy that all new coal-fired generating stations should be required to capture and store the carbon emissions from a substantial proportion of their capacity … New coal-fired generating stations in England or Wales are required to have CCS on at least 300 MW net of the proposed generating capacity.”
The government now has a good policy on CCS, promising to fund up to four large scale demonstration projects, covering both pre and post-combustion. However, it isn’t as good as Miliband claims. 300Mw is certainly substantial in terms of capacity size compared to existing CCS demonstrations, but may be only about a sixth of the capacity of a new coal station, which isn’t a substantial proportion. And the proposed timetable, with the demonstration plants operational by 2020, is much too slow. (For comparison, the EU timetable is for 10 to 12 plants by 2015.) In fact, the government line on coal has been criticised by influential voices, including Tim Yeo, Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee (and a Conservative).