Britain’s economic growth will be further damaged by fresh confusion over windfarms and renewable energy, warn leading businesses such as Marks and Spencer and Aviva.
The Aldersgate Group, which represents some of the UK’s biggest brands including Sky and Asda, said that the energy minister, John Hayes’ claims that the government was no longer in favour of onshore windfarms would “reverberate loudly in the board rooms of investment funds” and further deter investment in energy.
Although David Cameron and the energy secretary, Ed Davey, swiftly moved to distance the government from Mr Hayes’ comments, insisting that there was no change in onshore windfarm policy, the group warned that the damage had already been done.
Andrew Raingold, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, told Channel 4 News: “The coalition’s continued in-fighting about renewable energy is damaging growth. Business – the engine of growth – has been vocal about the competitive and economic advantage of a low carbon electricity supply in the UK.
“Renewable energy sources are a prudent investment: allowing the nation to hedge against future fossil fuel price volatility and benefit from greater long term cost certainty. These are at the heart of creating a positive environment for business.
“Ministerial comments reverberate loudly in the board rooms of investment funds. And open hostility – on aesthetic grounds – to the most cost-competitive renewable technology, will make investors reassess the risk of putting their capital in UK energy infrastructure.”
Mr Hayes’ comments were made on Tuesday night, when he appeared to brief media that he would tell a renewable energy conference that the country is “peppered” with onshore windfarms, adding that “enough is enough”.
He was reported to have said: “I can’t single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.
“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…I have asked the planning minister to look again at the relationship between these turbines and the landscape. It seems extraordinary to have allowed them to be peppered around the country without due regard for the interests of the local community or their wishes.”
But it is understood that Mr Davey’s office saw a draft of the speech and ordered Mr Hayes to take the comments out, and on Wednesday morning, Mr Davey slapped down his Tory minister, issuing a statement insisting that: “There has been no change to government policy on renewable energy…nor are there reviews being done of onshore wind on the basis of land”.
The Department for Communities and Local Government added that at no point had the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, been approached by Mr Hayes with regard to windfarms.
Later, at Prime Ministers’ Questions, Mr Cameron added: “There has been no change towards renewable energy. Let me explain clearly – we have got a big pipeline of onshore and offshore wind projects that are coming through.”
However it is widely thought that Mr Hayes’ comments will have the support of Tory backbenchers, who are opposed to onshore wind farms on planning and aesthetic grounds. Channel 4 News understands that Number 10 has no plans to dress down the energy minister.
Renewable energy companies gave Mr Hayes’ comments short shrift, and denied that Britain could still meet renewable energy targets “even if a minority of what’s in the system is built”.
According to the industry body RenewableUK, of the wind turbines which are operational, under construction and with planning consent, the total amount of energy produced amounts to 11.34GW. A further 2,968 turbines are awaiting planning permission; if all are granted, they would produce another 7.5GW.
The Committee on Climate Change set a target that 27GW of energy should be provided by wind by 2020.
However under the UK Renewable Energy Roadmap, the Department for Energy and Climate change suggested that they were aiming for 13GW of energy to be provided by wind from onshore windfarms.
Opponents to onshore wind farms say that any shortfall in targets could be made up by offshore wind, or by alternative renewable energy sources.
Dale Vince, the managing director of Ecotricity, said: “The government has done quite a lot to damage confidence in the renewables industry in the last couple of years … it’s almost like they’re trying to influence public opinion. We don’t need ‘a minority’ – we need a lot of it.
“This is an energy minister who doesn’t know his brief yet.”
Previously, a study by Mott MacDonald for the independent government advisory committee on climate change said that onshore wind was projected to remain low cost, with costs in 2040 of about £53-55/MWh.
However the report also suggested that the government could also influence energy prices by deciding which kind of technology it wished to produce.
On the eve of the Tory party conference, the Aldersgate Group wrote to the Chancellor, George Osborne, urging him to set a target for de-carbonising elecrticity production in the UK by 2030, arguing that a lack of clarity risked undermining investment in renewable energy.
Surveys have suggested that wind farms have strong public support. A YouGov poll conducted this month suggested that 55 per cent of people thought there should be more wind turbines, and 21 per cent thought there should be less than at present.