Onshore wind is a major success story in the UK’s low carbon economy. However, inadequate government support for onshore wind will make it near impossible to meet the country’s renewable energy and carbon reduction commitments, let alone bridge the looming electricity generation gap, writes Michael Phillips, Principle Consultant at Dulas.
A crucial part of the UK’s energy mix, onshore wind will help us to address the climate crisis whilst making a healthy contribution to meeting the country’s energy needs. It is also hugely popular with the public. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s recent public attitude survey highlighted that 79% of people support onshore wind. Despite this, the regulatory and policy vacuum around onshore renewables means that the deployment of new projects is at its slowest for a decade.
Onshore wind is excluded from capacity auctions for new power generation, has had subsidy support and other incentives removed, and must meet rigorous planning requirements. These requirements are often more onerous than those applied to fracking for shale gas, a form of energy generation supported significantly less by the public and one yet to prove that it can deliver without environmental damage.
Under the planning regime, new wind farms must be located within areas allocated under Local Plans, and to be approved they have to meet severe planning tests – tests that are often overcome in the more renewables-positive devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, in England the need for a proposal to meet these requirements alongside demonstrating full public support has led to an effective moratorium on onshore wind, with no new developments applying for permission in the past four years.
A key element in sustaining and increasing onshore wind capacity – particularly considering the poor policy environment for new development – is the process of repowering. Repowering is the re-design of existing wind energy sites when wind turbines reach the end of their operational life after 20-25 years. This is achieved by replacing older wind turbines with new, highly-efficient technology in a more effective layout across the site, increasing the wind farm’s generating capacity whilst utilising an area where planning permission has previously been granted.
A recent report from RenewableUK, the renewable energy industry’s trade association, found that over eight-gigawatts (GWs) of the UK’s existing 13GW onshore wind capacity is set to be retired in the next ten years, amounting to almost a fifth of the UK’s entire renewable energy output.
These first-generation wind farms were the pioneer projects for the industry, often located in areas with the best wind resource, and repowering these turbines with modern technology could lead to an increase of over 300% in generating capacity. However, the lack of government policy around both planning and financing for repowering onshore wind will likely see this capacity lost.
In England, government policy has led to an environment where local councils are able to refuse applications to repower existing wind farms despite positive recommendations from planners. This is often because under Government guidelines where new proposals are required to demonstrate unfettered community support, any local opposition – no matter how small – will see a project fail.
Whilst it’s right that broad support from councils and their constituents is essential in planning for new projects and extending existing ones, there is a minority of people forcefully opposed to the existence of renewable energy in the local landscape. Policy currently favours this small, vocal minority who oppose the development of renewable energy infrastructure such as wind power, often for spurious reasons and regardless of the high level of public support that the government’s own statistics illustrate.
Planning policy is much more favourable for repowering and new onshore wind in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Wales in particular is working to tackle the impact of the few by shifting the weight of decision-making for wind farms of ten-megawatts or more to Ministers and away from local councils, but England remains at standstill in its support for onshore wind at the level of government.
Regardless of the effective approaches to decarbonization that the devolved governments have developed, the absence of wider UK government policies that support the route to market for these projects remains an enormous issue.
Without subsidy support or the opportunity to enter energy auctions there is no clear route to market for developers looking to repower or cultivate new projects. At Dulas, we are seeing private investment beginning to be channeled back into onshore wind energy schemes, however it is of major concern that neither finance nor policy is sufficiently supportive to roll out renewable energy enough to fill the energy gap – estimated at 18% of total demand by 2030 – that will be left by the discontinuation of coal and gas.
When I started working in renewable energy project development in 2001, the government at that time had raised several pillars to support renewable energy and decarbonisation – including subsidy arrangements, the Climate Change Levy exemption, and positive planning policy. Since 2010 however, those pillars have been rapidly dismantled. The vast majority of the country clearly has a strong appetite for onshore renewable energy, but the current lack of policy and financial support from the UK government means that the prospects for repowering – let alone addressing the climate crisis – are under threat.
In order to meet the public’s calls to tackle the climate crisis and meet the UK’s energy needs over the next ten to fifteen years, the UK government must increase its support for both new and existing onshore renewables. The current political and financial climate is severely limiting for renewable energy, and clearly flies in the face of public demands for the government to do more.