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9 August 2019

UK could spark revival of onshore wind if it leads on European policy

As soon as a new government gets into office it is only natural that everyone and their granny wants something from them, and the onshore wind business has pounced on the opportunity that Boris Johnson’s new government in the UK represents.

All the great and the good in wind energy including local CEOs at Vestas, Siemens Gamesa, SSE, Scottish Power, EDF, Vattenfall, Innogy and Statkraft – have all signed up to a letter asking the new Energy Minister why onshore wind in the UK has hit a wall. Effectively nothing has been done since 2015 due to a move by the Cameron Government to give more power to local authorities to say no to onshore wind installations based purely on a whim or on a handful of local tenants complaining about turbines as an eyesore.

The policy change was barely discussed in 2014 when a group of MPs wrote an open letter to David Cameron calling for him to remove support for “inefficient and intermittent” onshore wind. He made rules that meant onshore wind was only allowed in areas designated suitable by local authorities, killed off all subsidies, and devolved responsibilities from central government to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The effect of these policies were that from 2015 onwards onshore wind was slashed by over 80%, and the letter is designed to reverse that decision , especially as the current Tory government seems set on continuing a policy of being pro-fracking, when a minority of its members are in favor, and recent research has just emerged in June that 74% of Tory voters want to see more wind farms on the wake of Conservative promises of zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While this group is not asking for the return of the subsidies, the fairly revolutionary Contracts for Difference process means that the government could trigger 35 GW of energy from onshore wind between now and 2035. The group also say that about 4.5 GW of onshore wind which can be achieved simply by refitting old turbines with refreshed technology which could be triggered instantly. Overall they believe that 31,000 jobs could come from the move along with £360 million a year in exports.

The then Prime Minister, David Cameron introduced the legislation without any research to back it up, based on appeasing a few complaining voices in the Tory heartlands, saying only that people were “frankly fed up” with the farms and slashed their subsidies, effectively making new installations unlikely. The criticisms were simply that turbines are an eyesore and a danger to birdlife and can be noisy, disturbing nearby residents. So put them further away from residents and a sensible permitting policy doesn’t have to surrender control entirely from local communities, simply set up some ground rules.

So this group now feels that the time to move is now, and has targeted the new Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, seen as a safe pair of hands, scholarly and so far a back room Tory cabinet member.

The letter is from “onshore wind developers, investors and the supply chain”  and that way it includes some UK only companies, but is pushed hardest by overseas players which have substantial holdings in the UK.

But Britain’s Onshore plight of finding it harder and harder to gain permits for build out, is shared by much of Europe, most specifically Germany, and any solution that the UK comes up with, may well be pounced on and copied across the EU.

The letter cites the government cross party advisory group the Committee on Climate Change and talks about delivering net zero at least cost. Currently there is a lot of confusion around carbon capture and 1950s designs of nuclear power stations – and offshore wind only, as the government strategy. Carbon capture is simply not with us at scale, and modern nuclear designs need a five year run up.

The 35GW of onshore wind by 2035, as described in the technical annex of the CCC’s Net Zero report as the cheapest form of energy possible, suggesting it could provide a 7% reduction in electricity costs, saving households £50 a year. This is in stark contrast to a nuclear industry that wants to see electricity bills increased to pay for more nuclear power that won’t be with us for at least ten years, and which is likely to go into massive cost overruns.

The biggest problem is that the UK government are consumed by the Brexit negotiations, where nothing much is happening, and if nothing does come from these negotiations, it may be a different government in charge of the country in short order.

In Scotland there is already cross-party support for appropriately-sited new wind.