The Senedd has unanimously backed calls for legislation that would force developers behind major energy projects to provide benefits for the communities they plan to build in.
Passed following cross-party support, the motion will also heap pressure on the Government to compel developers to conduct community impact assessments and present a community-benefit plan as part of the planning process.
The calls were raised by Ynys Môn MS, Rhun ap Iorwerth, as a result of community concerns on Anglesey following a flurry of planning applications for solar farm developments.
“Recent decisions by the Welsh Government to earmark large parts of Anglesey as a solar development site have provided opportunities for major international companies to have an easier pathway towards permission to create huge farms,” he told the Senedd.
“The results are to be seen already, It’s frightening how quickly things have happened.
“Enso Energy has announced plans for a 750-acre solar farm; Lightsource BP have plans to create 350 MW of solar energy that extends to over 2,000 acres; the Low Carbon company has identified 150 acres for Traffwll solar farm; EDF has bought a 190-acre site with permission for a solar farm on the north of the island, and that’s on top of the plans that have been developed already.
“We’re talking here about huge areas of land, including, of course, Môn Mam Cymru, good agricultural land, and we’re talking about the communities around those areas and within those areas.”
Such is the scale of the proposed developments – being designated as Developments of National Significance (DNS) – they will be decisions for Welsh Government planning officers rather than elected councillors on the island.
But adding that while Anglesey could make a “major contribution” in solar energy developments, the Plaid MS echoed concerns previously raised by the council’s economic development portfolio holder, that permitting such plans as they are could leave “a huge footprint on parts of rural Wales with very little benefit for those communities.”
“What do developers allege as local benefit? EDF’s website says that £10,000 will be paid as a community benefit on an annual basis—only £10,000.
“Now, the developers of the Alaw Môn farm invite plans for a sustainable project in the area, they also promise that their scheme will provide opportunities to rest land for farms that have been intensively farmed.
“I think that that is an insulting attempt to put a spin on the loss of agricultural land.”
Referring to the potential of using the roofs of more buildings – or even the suggestion of one constituent of using the central reservation of the A55 for more panels – he concluded, “By being creative, I think that we could generate energy on a very large scale by working with, rather than against, communities.”
Aberconwy Conservative MS, Janet Finch Saunders, said there were similar concerns along the north Wales coast, thanks to a series of “huge windfarm projects that are coming our way.”
She added, “We need renewable energy, but I implore this Welsh Government, and the Minister, to ensure that any new renewable schemes, that there is that perfect healthy balance between our biodiversity and conservation efforts.”
Labour MS, Alun Davies, spoke of the need to “put the word ‘community’ back into our energy policy,” adding: “What I would like to see the Welsh Government focusing upon is distributed generation; a focus on what a community can do in order to deliver generation, both for its needs and for the needs of the locality.”
Low Carbon has pointed to the benefits of its proposed scheme, saying it would play a role in de-carbonising the Welsh economy while also providing economic, social and environmental enhancements.
“Economic benefits will include the creation of temporary jobs, supporting local supply chains during the construction phase and support the low carbon decentralised energy generation on the Isle of Anglesey as a key growth sector,” the firm added.
After the vote was unanimously backed by the Senedd, including Government support, Mr ap Iorwerth said that external developers should be expected to “genuinely share profits with host communities.”
He concluded, “This certainly strengthens the case for ensuring that the needs and concerns of communities are put at the heart of decisions on energy projects, and that benefits must come to host communities. ”
Lee Waters, the deputy climate change minister, went on to suggest that the Government was looking at the potential of setting up a publicly-owned energy company, “to accelerate the delivery of renewables that will bring a greater level of community benefit than current models offer.”
“We know that, in order to reach net zero, we’re going to have to make more cuts in our emissions in the next 10 years than we have over the last 30 years, and that pace and scale are going to have to quicken in the years beyond that.
“So, there’s an imperative for us to act at scale, at pace, but we also need to bring communities with us and we need to be mindful of the other impacts of these developments.”