IT IS NOT OFTEN that any Scottish Conservative policy announcement attracts even qualified support from trade unionists. It was therefore refreshing this week to see Dave Watson of UNISON say that our new Energy Policy document, which I helped launch on Monday, was ‘a useful contribution’ to the energy debate in Scotland. It is certainly interesting to see that across the political spectrum there is growing concern about where the SNP’s approach on energy is taking our country.
There are fewer issues more controversial in the areas of rural Scotland that I represent than wind farms. Virtually every week we hear of a new planning application for large turbines up to 150 meters tall. Given the level of public subsidy available, paid for through our electricity bills, it is not surprising that many farmers and landowners are looking to cash in on the opportunity to make money out of land that might otherwise be unproductive.
Many of these developments face substantial local opposition, with people concerned about visual impact, noise, impact on tourism and possible health issues. Communications from people opposing wind farms make up a very large proportion of my mailbag as a local representative.
Concern over the expansion of onshore wind development is not simply restricted to local visual and environmental concerns. Wind power is an expensive form of energy. Studies conducted by the economist Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University concluded that wind power is “an extraordinarily expensive and inefficient way of reducing CO2 emissions when compared with the option of investing in efficient and flexible gas combined cycle plants”.
The cost of this is borne by electricity consumers through rising costs. We have nearly 40% of the Scottish population currently living in fuel poverty, with numbers rapidly increasing. Moreover, business also has to pay a cost, and Scottish manufacturing is already suffering as a result. One simple example of this is the papermaking industry in Fife, a very heavy user of energy, which due to rising costs has now all but disappeared, with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
Despite these concerns SNP Government policy is to continue to build onshore wind farms at an alarming rate. Where authorities turn down applications all too often these are waved through by Scottish ministers on appeal, in an attempt to meet the target of 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Given the current rate of build, based as it is on generous subsidies, that target is likely to be exceeded.
To try and address the concerns of both affected communities and electricity consumers, the Scottish Conservatives this week launched a new energy policy. This calls for a balanced approach to energy generation, instead of the present single-minded fixation that the SNP Government has with building more wind turbines. There are three principles which underline our policy: firstly, the need for security of supply, secondly, affordability, and thirdly, the need for increased decarbonisation of energy production.
Our policy would seek to achieve these objectives with a number of detailed proposals. Firstly, the over generous subsidy to onshore wind farms, which is driving the current “gold rush” approach to development, should be cut by 50%. Secondly, local authorities should be allowed moratoriums of up to one year on planning applications for wind developments to allow time to take stock and for these to be properly handled. Thirdly, there needs to be new planning guidance covering all of Scotland to provide greater clarity both to developers and to potential objectors as to which areas of the country are deemed to be suitable to accommodate wind developments.
But the policy is not just about restricting onshore wind. We wish to see greater support for offshore renewables such as wave and tidal power, where there is a potential. We support the exploitation of Scotland’s shale gas and coal bed methane reserves. In the US the shale gas revolution has reduced the wholesale gas costs by some 50% and both consumers and business have benefitted as a result. And we, unlike the SNP, would support the construction of new nuclear power stations in Scotland to replace Hunterston and Torness when they reach the end of their lives.
The energy policy needs to be about more than just energy production. Equally important is the question of energy demand, and we feel simply not enough is being done at present to promote demand reduction. That is why we are proposing measures such as greater use of the Green Council Tax Discount which has already been legislated for, to encourage home owners to make their properties more energy efficient. We also need to look at restrictive planning laws which mean that many older properties in Scotland can only have single glazed windows.
This is a balanced set of proposals intended both to reduce rising energy costs, and thus benefit consumers and business, and also tackle the rising public concern about the overdevelopment of onshore wind. Undoubtedly there are some who would prefer us to go further in restricting wind developments, with ongoing concerns about the cost and reliability of the technology. But most will agree that this is an important set of steps forward.
Whilst aspects of energy policy are devolved, much of it is reserved to the UK Government. With the appointment of John Hayes as Energy Minister, David Cameron has already signalled that he is listening to those who are concerned about the growth of wind farms. The Scottish Conservatives hope that our colleagues in Westminster will pay heed to the policy work that we have done, and start following suit. With even some trade unionists on board, surely this will prove a popular move.