Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

 

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In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a clear promise:

“We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”

Soon after winning the election, the Conservative government followed through on this commitment, introducing three key changes concerning onshore wind in England and Wales:

  1. New planning guidance was issued stating that onshore wind farms must be sited in areas “identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan”, and that any objections from local communities to proposed developments must be “fully addressed”.
  2. Energy secretary Amber Rudd announced the phasing-out of renewables subsidies, with onshore wind subsidies ending a year earlier than planned, in April 2016.
  3. The government’s 2015 Energy Bill (England and Wales) included a measure to devolve powers to determine major onshore wind farm applications (with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts) to local authorities.

Onshore wind in context

Since the construction of the UK’s first commercial wind farm in 1991, onshore wind energy has grown to become the country’s largest source of renewable energy generation. With more than 8GW of operational capacity, onshore wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December.

An Office for National Statistics survey reported that, in 2014, about 3,000 businesses were operating in the onshore wind sector, which employed 6,500 people across the UK – 3,000 in England, 2,500 in Scotland, and 500 each in Wales and Northern Ireland, generating £2.8bn.

Renewable UK, which represents the wind and marine energy sector, argues that onshore wind is an environmentally-friendly and cost effective form of energy:

“A modern 2.5MW (commercial scale) turbine, on a reasonable site, will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year – enough to make 230 million cups of tea.”

In recent years, higher capacity turbines and improvements and reductions in installation, operation and maintenance costs have made onshore wind more economically attractive. The European Wind Energy Association claims that onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new power generation in Europe.

Responses to the policy changes

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party acknowledged that onshore wind makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix, but observed that onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, and are unable by themselves to provide the capacity that a stable energy system requires. The government has since underlined that there is no longer any need for subsidising onshore wind and that the £800m in subsidies added about £10.00 to an annual household energy bill.

An article in The Economist agreed that subsidies for renewables were too generous and pointed out that onshore wind is an unreliable energy source. This was echoed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said:  “There is absolutely no place for subsidising wind – a failed medieval technology which during the coldest day of the year so far produced only 0.75 per cent of the electricity load.”

However, environmental campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, argued that scrapping support for wind turbines, rather than phasing them out, would increase the cost of meeting carbon reduction targets, or increase the risk of missing them. This, in turn, they said would lead the UK to pursue more expensive decarbonisation options, resulting in additional costs to consumers.

Meanwhile, energy companies warned that the policy changes had made some renewable power projects “uninvestable”.  In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that one renewable energy company had scrapped nine onshore wind projects in England in the previous four months, halting investments of more than £250m. The company said it had instead switched its investments to projects in the Netherlands and Germany.

In Scotland, which has 61% of the UK’s onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Government has stressed that it continues to support onshore wind and other sources of renewable energy. In December 2015, Scottish chief planner John McNairney wrote to Scotland’s heads of planning explaining that the administration has not changed its stance on onshore wind farms or energy targets.

The planning changes

With regard to the planning aspects of the policy reforms, the Royal Town Planning Institute questioned the need to enable major wind farm projects to be decided locally, given that local planning authorities already have final consenting power for onshore wind farms under 50 megawatts, which make up the majority of applications.

In July 2015, Planning Resource reported that the policy was already having an impact. Kieran Tarpy, managing director at planning consultancy Entrust, said that within days of the new guidance being announced one council had refused a planning application based on the need for community backing. He predicted that the policy changes would have a “dramatic impact” on the number of proposals going into the system.

However, last month, Planning Resource reported that some local authorities, including councils in Hull, Cumbria and Devon, have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy.

The UK government may still be committed to halting the spread of onshore wind farms, but it appears that rumours of the death of onshore wind have been exaggerated.

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