Opinion: Are we due an onshore wind renaissance?

Environmental consultant Stephen Cirell explores the benefits of onshore wind and why its use has been met with such resistance. 

Wind energy has been on the sidelines for a few years now. Having emerged as one of the best forms of renewable energy, it fell foul of the views of backbench MPs in the South of England which led to a massive reduction in the number of schemes in England. But are circumstances changing? There is evidence that wind will be making a comeback some time soon, whether Government policy changes or not.

Wind energy is one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy available in the UK. Whilst solar farms have blossomed, with that technology powering forward to a total of around 15 GW, wind has stalled. It had 14 GW installed over five years ago but has not advanced further. Wind energy is intermittent (the same as solar energy) but when the wind is blowing it tends to generate considerably more electricity. Again, similar to solar, costs have continued to fall. Both technologies are now considerably cheaper than both gas and nuclear power. But why is there not more onshore wind?

To find the answer to this, you have to go back to 2015, when a Ministerial Statement made clear that wind energy had fallen out of favour. In keeping with the Conservative Manifesto from the recently held General Election the rules were proposed to be changed. Subsequently, what was then Footnote 49 was added to paragraph 158 (b) of the fourth iteration of the National Planning Policy Framework. Although being inconsistent with the general thrust of policy support for renewable energy, wind schemes were singled out for harsher treatment, making it substantially harder to get planning consent for a new onshore wind project.

What is now Footnote 54 sets down three key tests for the gaining of planning consent for onshore wind: firstly, the area must have been zoned as suitable for wind energy in the Council’s Local or Neighbourhood Plan; secondly, the planning impacts of a wind project must have been fully addressed; and finally, there must be community support for the project. This effectively raised the bar so high that few projects could get over it and many more planned projects were dissuaded from even trying.

white windmill

It is accurate to say that this was a deliberate move on the part of the Conservative Government of the time. Wind energy had caused some controversy, but history shows that it was always a small minority who shouted the loudest. Fortunately, they have now become quieter as the voices of the majority are better heard. In particular, it was MPs in the home counties who objected to the spoiling of their views by the installation of wind turbines on the landscape. As the latest figures have shown, this move has cost consumers millions of pounds in increased energy costs at the current time (when more renewable energy could have been provided had this technology been better supported). The position in Scotland and Wales is different, where public policy has been much more supportive and therefore the outcome much more successful.

But the position in England is starting to change. Firstly, there is growing public unease about the climate emergency. The Government in Whitehall itself declared a climate emergency, as did the Welsh and Scottish governments, as well as over 300 local authorities. BEIS also publishes figures on the popularity of renewable energy technologies. Solar is still in the lead, but figures now show an 80% support for wind energy amongst the public. These two factors are significant.

A thawing of the hardened Government attitude to wind projects is demonstrated by two recent developments. The Government had also acted some years ago to remove onshore wind energy from the incentive regime (Contracts for Difference), thereby meaning that any projects would need to be subsidy free, whereas offshore wind continued to receive generous Government subsidies. But last year that position has been reversed and onshore wind is back in the fold. There is criticism that its position in Pot 1 means that funding is limited but it is significant that it is back in consideration at all.

The second development is that in the Government’s recent Energy Security Strategy, onshore wind energy was actually mentioned. This in itself was significant as onshore wind has in the past been remarkably absent in Government policy documentation. However, it was not a blank canvas, simply a grudging concession that onshore wind should be allowed in a small number of new projects with strong local backing in order to test appetite for more projects.

There was considerable disappointment with the Energy Security Strategy as it had been leaked in advance that onshore wind targets were going to be significantly increased. Sadly, this did not happen.

There are numerous projects waiting to proceed for onshore wind, some by local authorities. Currently, Bristol City Council is the only authority that can boast a civically owned and developed wind farm, dating back to 2013. Other Council projects that had been planned were shelved when the rules were changed.

windmills on grass field at daytime

So what will it take to get a wind project off the ground for a local authority now? Well first, the wind energy industry is hoping that the planning rules mentioned above will be relaxed in due course and Footnote 54 will be discarded. This seems inevitable with growing public support and the urgency of reducing consumer energy bills in the UK.

In the meantime, local authorities could undertake a detailed analysis of the potential for wind energy in their areas (requiring a wind consultant) and then zone areas as suitable for wind development. That would meet the first strand of the current test.

Secondly, local authorities can involve their communities in the plans. There are various ways that this can be achieved and a single objector will no longer be able to scupper a well planned project. Giving members of the public a share in the ownership, via crowd funding or similar schemes, may also be popular.

It should always be the case that a local authority considers the impacts of a renewable energy project in any event and so this work would be included in a development. No one is suggesting that we simply construct wind turbines everywhere – what we need are the right projects in the right areas, with the right outcomes. To achieve this should ensure strong community support, particularly if this will reduce energy bills.

Another lever the local authority can pull is local benefit. This has now gone well beyond community benefit payments made to nearby residents. Instead, they should be looking at apprenticeships, local job creation, power purchase agreements to supply discounted electricity to local businesses and so on. The electricity market is changing and it may only be a short time before local energy supply from renewables to consumers is permitted under the regulatory regime.

Some local authorities might want to push the boundaries further. They are, after all, the planning authority and so have the primary decision on planning consent. The Secretary of State, of course, can always call in an application, but would he or she do that if the community strongly supported a wind energy scheme, perhaps even if it had not been zoned in the Local Plan?

The current energy crisis and rising energy costs seem to have created a new impetus to avoid Russian gas and oil and provide more local renewable energy. In this context it seems crazy to ignore one of the best forms of renewable energy available, simply on grounds of visual amenity. So local authorities are once again raising their interest in wind energy projects and the next few years may well see many more projects coming forwards.

Photos by Abby Anaday and Zbynek Burival


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top