A rural revolution

The South West aims to generate 15 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2010, compared with 3 per cent at present. But planning consent is a bar to progress, says Luke Gabb

At the last count, there were around 150 businesses working in renewable energy across the South West and some 100 different renewable energy schemes up and running. These range from small-scale solar power installations to the UK’s first centralised biogas plant in Holsworthy, Devon, which runs mainly on farm slurry and food waste.

The South West also boasts other renewable energy firsts, including the UK’s first commercial wind farm at Delabole in North Cornwall, which opened in 1991, and the world’s first marine current turbine, which was installed off the coast of North Devon in 2003. There are also proposals for the world’s first large-scale wave farm off the North Cornwall coast. Called Wave Hub, the project is at the detailed feasibility stage and could be up and running by 2008, providing the £13m needed to build it can be secured.

The South West’s pre-eminence in these emerging renewables markets is largely down to geography. The region has one of the best wave climates in the UK, one of the largest tidal fluctuations in the world in the Bristol Channel, high levels of wind, hydro and solar power and the best climate in the UK for growing energy crops.

Combine this with a host of individuals who lead the world in renewable energy modelling, project development and device design and installation, and it is not surprising that the South West aims to generate 15 per cent of its power from renewable resources by 2010, compared with 3 per cent at present.

Real-estate adviser DTZ recently calculated that the renewable energy sector could be worth more than £500m in the South West alone by 2020, employing some 17,400 people. The sector is currently worth £34m and employs 1,100 in the region.

The onshore wind market

There are several challenges to be overcome if that potential is to be realised. The onshore wind market in the South West – having led the way in the 1990s – has been largely static. Although Cornwall has seven onshore wind farms consisting of 103 turbines, neighbouring Devon has only one, for example. The £400m Zephyr wind farm investment fund in 2004 is, however, a groundbreaking deal that is considered to have given a significant boost to the investment community’s appetite for renewable energy projects. But, of the 15 wind farms in that fund, only one is located in the South West (at Bears Down, Cornwall), with seven each in Scotland and Wales (including the 60MW North Hoyle offshore project).

In December, a three-turbine wind farm was approved at Avonmouth near Bristol, but just weeks later a nine-turbine wind farm north of Dartmoor National Park in Devon was rejected. There are three more wind farms planned for Devon, but one is the subject of a public inquiry this summer and another awaits a decision from the Government. Meanwhile, two more wind farms are planned for Somerset.

All this activity suggests that the industry has the appetite to develop the onshore market in the South West and recent studies suggest that the region could generate 18 per cent of all its power needs from wind energy without encroaching on protected areas.

Planning policy

But planning remains a big constraint. While PPS22, the national planning policy statement for renewable energy in England, was warmly welcomed, there is little evidence so far that it has had a beneficial effect in the South West in practice.

PPS22 re-emphasised the need for renewable energy projects and the industry hoped that it would improve the prospects of wind farm developments, especially in rural areas. It encourages stronger policies that prompt and encourage the development of renewable energy.

But while PPS22 may have strengthened the hand of developers in challenging local authority decisions, Bond Pearce‘s experience of advising on more than 100 onshore energy projects shows that the national planning policy statement has failed to shorten the consenting process by any significant amount. Although the transfer from regional planning guidance to regional spatial strategies, and the change from local plans to local development frameworks, should lead to more certainty in the planning process, the timelines for the development of these documents and the achievement of regional and sub-regional targets are not getting shorter.

With that in mind, Bond Pearce has recently worked with the Town and Country Planning Association and others to produce guidance for preparing renewable energy planning policies in development plan documents. The guidance outlines the policy requirements and key issues that need to be considered by local planning authorities when preparing policies for renewable energy and is being seen as a great step forward.

Offshore wind farms

Unfortunately, the South West’s steeply shelving seabed means that offshore wind is likely to be expensive to develop on a large scale. There may be one or two shallow areas where it can be developed, but the Government will have to conduct a strategic environmental assessment of offshore wind in the South West before licences can be granted.

There are, however, plans for a 30-turbine offshore wind farm next to the Scarweather sandbank off South Wales, which is one of 21 offshore projects advised on by Bond Pearce. But owing to a global shortage of turbines and other key equipment, fuelled by a raft of tax credits for the US wind industry, E.ON UK Renewables announced in December that it was putting the project on hold until 2008 or 2009.

Wave and tidal energy

Wind aside, some of the most exciting developments in the South West renewables market is in the field of wave and tidal energy.

Bond Pearce acted for the Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines on a £3m equity funding round for the design, manufacture, installation and testing of the first full-size twin rotor tidal turbine to be rated at 1MW. The company is now looking at deploying a ‘farm’ of up to 10 tidal turbines.

My colleagues are also advising on the consenting aspects of the Wave Hub project off the North Cornwall coast, which aims to create the world’s first large-scale wave farm. The South West Regional Development Agency, which is driving the £13m project, recently announced it had shortlisted three wave device developers with which it will work on delivering the project.

Wave Hub will consist of a grid-connected electrical ‘socket’ some 10 miles off the coast, to which wave energy devices can be connected. This demonstration project will allow testing on a scale never before seen and should be operational in 2008.

Cornwall is also taking a lead on the supply of sustainable energy, with proposals being worked on for a local energy services company that would invest in sustainable energy projects, as well as designing, constructing and operating them with the aim of providing energy directly to local homes, businesses and public buildings.

The project is being promoted by the Cornwall Sustainable Energy Partnership and CPR Regeneration, the West Cornwall urban regeneration company. It envisages community-based biomass combined heat and power plants, community wind turbines and microgeneration technologies for individual homes.

All these exciting developments are taking place against the background of the Government’s ongoing energy review. The challenge now is to ensure that the contribution renewables can make to the environment, security of supply and the economy of the South West is recognised and does not become marginalised by the debate over nuclear power.

Luke Gabb is a partner at Bond Pearce