When it comes to energy supply, security, cutting carbon and cutting costs have never been more important. So when the Government recently announced a change in planning rules around building new onshore wind in the UK, many saw a golden opportunity to bring back one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy.
Relaxing the rules
Rules laid out by David Cameron in 2015 meant that local authorities in England could reject an application to build a wind farm on the basis of a single objection from a local resident. As well as this, local authorities could define where a ‘suitable location’ for a wind farm would be. Such stringent requirements – which are not applied to any other energy sources – have seen a 97% drop in the number of turbines being built in England. Analysis from Carbon Brief estimates this reduction has cost UK bill payers £5.1bn last year, which is around £182 for every household. Under growing pressure from his Conservative backbenchers, Rishi Sunak conceded to change the planning laws that had effectively banned the development of onshore wind farms in England.
A green light for onshore wind?
So are we going to see more onshore wind built as a result of the recent changes? The short answer to this is; no. While it’s no longer possible for a single objection to stand in the way of a new onshore development, wind remains at a huge disadvantage compared with other projects. And the rules confine onshore wind to certain areas of the country, with already cash strapped local authorities still required to define where ‘suitable locations’ would be under their local plans. Ultimately, elected local councillors will make the final planning decision, and wind developers face continued ambiguity, uncertainty and risk over the process.
As a result, many think the opportunity for England to encourage investment into new onshore wind at the scale needed to rapidly cut bills and boost energy security has been missed. Industry representative Renewables UK argues that the changes don’t go far enough, and much more needs to be done to encourage this cheap, clean energy to be built. The most effective way to ‘bring back onshore wind’ is to level the playing field so that onshore wind is treated like any other type of infrastructure, and developers are given the clarity they need to make investment decisions.
All this comes at a time when the Government is aiming to completely decarbonise the UK’s electricity system within 12 years. You don’t need to look too far to see what could be achieved with the right political support. The latest Contracts for Difference auction saw 24 new projects awarded contracts – a total of 1.5GW of new onshore wind – all of them located in Scotland.
Just last week, Kimberly-Clark, which owns household brands Andrex, Kleenex and Huggies, confirmed the opening of a new £75m onshore wind farm in South Lanarkshire, which will supply clean energy for around 80% of the company’s electricity needs in the UK. The wind farm is owned by Octopus Renewables Infrastructure Trust (ORIT), with Kimberly-Clark having a Power Purchase Agreement for the energy generated.
A change of direction
There’s no doubt that onshore wind is one of the most cost effective options for new electricity in the UK – cheaper than gas and nuclear – and reduces our reliance on imported and expensive fossil fuels. More onshore wind would make bills cheaper for everyone, from households to businesses. It can play a vital role in helping the UK meet its legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. To reach its full potential, we’d need a bigger change in the Government’s direction for onshore wind.