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Energy boss with the wind in his sails

The development of wind farms seem becalmed but the BWEA chairman is an optimist about green power

Should David Cameron seize control of the country then the renewable energy sector would have a hot new connection to the centre of political power.

Adam Bruce, chairman of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), is an Oxford contemporary of both Cameron and the new London mayor, Boris Johnson. But he laughs when asked if he is part of the Tory toff clique and points out he was never a member of the Bullingdon Club.

A descendant of Robert the Bruce and married to the daughter of an Italian prince, the Scotsman stood for the Conservative party for an East Fife parliamentary seat, but now says he is happy to engage in politics through the green power sector.

“Part of the armoury that the chairman of the BWEA has to have is a comfortable understanding of where the political leads are. I am quite comfortable doing all the political stuff. At 27 I thought that being a member of parliament was the only way you could do politics, but history has proved me wrong.

“If we can engage with the British government and with European institutions, as we are doing, to ensure renewables have played a significant job in UK energy generation then I will be happy that I have done a good job with my two years [as BWEA chairman].”

But can he be happy that half his term has gone by and his industry is beginning to resemble a bunch of turbines becalmed by lack of wind at a time when traditional alternatives such as oil are more than $130 a barrel?

Shell has pulled out of the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, the London Array, off the Kent and Essex coasts, amid soaring costs; Amec has ditched a project on the Isle of Lewis after endless planning objections, and dozens of similar projects have been delayed for up to five years.

Bruce, who mixes his part-time post as chairman of the wind organisation with being head of sustainability at Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), is confident that in two years’ time the picture will look vastly more attractive.

This former lawyer is not inclined to dwell on failure, especially when his own company has just agreed to press ahead with the Greater Gabbard scheme, off the Suffolk coast, costing £1.5bn and which is likely to come on stream before the London Array, making it the world’s biggest offshore wind scheme for a while. Equally, Bruce is relaxed about Shell selling its 33% stake in the Array, believing that it is inevitable that assets will be bought and sold. Similarly, the failure to win planning permission for the Isle of Lewis wind farm is “hugely disappointing” but he is hopeful its developers, Amec and British Energy, will come back with new proposals.

“The Isle of Lewis is a bit like the London Array. It’s easy to look at these very large projects and see them as totemic and say the industry is not succeeding when issues crop up but I do not see this as being the case,” he adds.

He does accept that Shell’s decision to concentrate on the US, where the biggest and most attractive opportunities in the wind business exist, is part of a wider trend. Both the US and Asia are “pulling away” from Europe, partly because it is so much easier to get planning permission in regions where land is more plentiful, he argues.

The BWEA’s own annual review makes daunting reading, given the large number of British wind projects that are stalled in the planning stage. There are 222 wind farms awaiting some kind of approval. Between them, they account for 7.5 gigawatts of power, which is three times the amount now in operation. With some schemes struggling against concerns from locals or from the Ministry of Defence over radar interference, it throws into doubt whether the government can meet its target of producing 15% of UK energy from renewables by 2020, given the level now is 2%.

Bruce accepts there are a host of short-term problems stalling low-carbon energy generation. But he is keen to ensure that the image does not take hold that Britain is an unfavourable place to invest in renewables “because it’s not”.

There is always more that ministers can do but Adam talks about a “significant concentration of effort” across ministries, which has led to the introduction of constructive energy, planning and climate change bills.

“That’s not to say we don’t have problems. If you look at the proportion of projects that are being consented, the number has gone down from seven out of 10, to five out of 10, with the time it is taking for planning consent to come through going up from an average of 20 months to 24 months … we still have to resolve local planning and all the ancillary issues around those things that have held back the deployment of wind energy in the UK from reaching the same levels as Denmark and Germany.”

And what about the MoD’s continuing objections about how wind turbines are affecting radar coverage, which is stalling schemes such as E.ON’s huge Humber Gateway project?

“I expect to see quite a number of developments coming together in the next month. That is a really significant development from a position where even six months ago when the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the MoD were almost not talking to each other … And we were coming under considerable pressure from developers.

“It is not that the MoD had said ‘no’ at the beginning because that would be fine, just develop another one. It is that they had said ‘yes’ at the beginning and you would have hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of development spend and they would then say ‘no’ at the very end. And that was immensely frustrating.”

Despite these issues, Bruce is convinced that the right environment is being created for a very successful industry, which he sees working with oil, gas, coal and even nuclear power and not necessarily competing against them for investment.

Many argue that this country needs “feed-in” tariffs as in Germany, in which premium rates are paid for renewable power, but Bruce is suspicious about dumping the existing financial support system using the Renewable Obligation and starting anew. “If you look what happened when the Renewable Obligation was introduced and the previous scheme – a form of feed-in tariff – was ended, there was a two-year period when absolutely nothing happened. The UK market dried up because of the uncertainty,” he argues.

Bruce, who was UK head of the Irish wind farm developer Airtricity until it was bought by SSE last autumn, spends only a small part of his time at the BWEA’s headquarters in Islington.

The rest of the time he commutes between his Edinburgh home and various company offices in Perth, Glasgow and London, although he does find time for reading and learning Italian. Unsurprisingly, given his forebears, he is interested in genealogy and acts as a legal beagle trying to sort out squabbles in the Clan Donald, of which he is Finlaggan Pursuivant of Arms, a herald in service to the clan.

Bruce has an 18-month-old son with a second child on the way. This is a man who seems more at home with the “new dad” contingent rather than the rowdies of the Bullingdon. Asked about fatherhood, he gushes: “It’s just the bestest, bestest thing.”

He must be hoping ministers really do feel the same way about wind power.

The CV

Edinburgh, 1968

Glenalmond College, Perth Edinburgh University, LLB Balliol, Oxford, MA; president of union

1992-95 Solicitor, McGrigor Donald
1995-97 Solicitor, Murray & Donald 
1998-2006 Director, public policy, McGrigor Donald
2006-08 UK chief executive, Airtricity 
2008- Head of sustainable development, Scottish & Southern

Married to Sofia; one son and another child on the way

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