Boris Johnson seems to have had a change of heart. Despite once saying that wind turbines couldn’t “pull the skin off a rice pudding”, the prime minister recently announced his intention to turn the UK into “the Saudi Arabia of wind power”, increasing the government’s offshore wind target to 40 gigawatts of energy by 2030.
But he and his party remain less enthused about onshore wind. In Johnson’s speech there was no mention of the planning barriers that restrict onshore wind developments to areas designated by local authorities and require clear local support. These restrictions, which are almost impossible to meet, were introduced due to pressure from Conservative MPs in 2015. This was at the same time as subsidies for building onshore wind farms – including a fixed price guarantee for the energy they generate – were scrapped.
When announcing the changes, then Energy Secretary Amber Rudd claimed that there were enough projects in the pipeline and that they were “reaching the limits of what is affordable, and what the public is prepared to accept”.
Despite this, onshore wind has an important role to play in the UK’s renewable energy mix. Between April and June 2020, renewables generated nearly 45% of the UK’s electricity – and onshore wind generated 20% of that. If every home in the country is to be powered by wind in ten years as Johnson promises, current government policy needs to change. With a different approach to planning, onshore wind can be developed quickly and cheaply, providing benefits to communities that offshore wind farms often can’t.
The onshore block
Subsidies for onshore wind are expected to be restored in 2021 as the government has proposed reopening the contract auction scheme. But there’s currently no plan to lift English planning restrictions, which mean councils can only grant permission for a new wind farm if they meet two requirements.
First, it must be located somewhere that’s identified as suitable for wind farms in a local or neighbourhood plan. Updating these plans is a laborious process and many local authorities lack the staff or resources to do it. Second, all planning impacts identified by local people must have been addressed and there must be community backing.
These planning conditions are unique to onshore wind and there is no guidance on how community support should be demonstrated. The effect of this is significant – developers will not risk the huge expense of preparing and submitting a planning application if it can be blocked by a small number of opponents.
Government data reveals the impact of these restrictions. Only eight onshore wind farm applications for new or extended sites were submitted in England between 2016 and 2020. In comparison, 237 applications were submitted between 2011 and 2015 – a 96% decrease.
Just 16 new turbines were granted planning permission between 2016 and 2020, in seven separate locations. Between 2011 and 2015, 435 turbines were permitted to be built on 108 sites – another 96% fall.
Despite the glacial pace of onshore wind development since 2015, the UK industry continues to pioneer developments in battery storage and smart grids, and onshore wind remains one of the cheapest forms of energy generation. It is also popular, with 76% of people polled in a recent survey supportive. Inevitably, wind farms on land are also easier to build and maintain.
Onshore wind also provides opportunities for community ownership, offering a revenue stream for local towns and villages, something that’s not currently an option for UK offshore wind due to the higher costs of development.
Why we need new onshore wind
Most UK onshore wind farms have time-limited planning consent. Permission is often granted for 25 years, after which the turbines must be removed. Many of the UK’s onshore sites are beginning to reach this deadline. While there is a potential for sites to repower, through removing old turbines and replacing them with new ones, not all sites will. There are barriers to repowering in some places, including local opposition, a site not performing as expected, or encroachment by new developments nearby.
Many existing wind farms have performed well but not all are in the best locations. As technology has developed, new, more viable, sites have been found. If existing sites don’t repower, there is a risk that our supply of onshore wind energy will slowly fall over time. That’s why it’s increasingly important for the UK government and industries to develop new sites.
We need to lift the restrictive planning policy in England and allow new developments where suitable. Applications for onshore wind should not face more restrictions than other renewable energy projects. The Scottish approach, which requires developers to work with communities to achieve a balance between local support, environmental impact, and likely energy yield, could work in England. This would also ensure developments are compatible with the landscape and encourage community ownership, which helps nurture local support.
While the UK government revises national planning policy, the draft white paper offers no mention of onshore wind. There’s an urgent need to address this gap, but will Johnson grasp the opportunity?