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The 5 key tests of a new onshore wind policy

Updated: 5 days ago

Last year saw a landmark political moment for the energy sector as the Prime Minister announced that he would end the effective ban on onshore wind in England which has been in place since 2015.

By Nathan Bennett, Head of Public Affairs at RenewableUK

Although credit for this announcement should rightly be given to Simon Clarke MP, and the MPs from across the House who all publicly championed reform – including former Conservative Prime Ministers, and the leaders of Labour and the Lib Dems – they were all bolstered a strong economic case for new onshore wind and its overwhelming public popularity, as I’ve made clear in blogs in the past (here and here):


- Onshore wind is one of the lowest cost ways of generating new electricity – so new wind farms benefit billpayers, as well as the UK’s energy security.


- 74% of the public support onshore wind, including 83% of Conservative voters. 76% of people would support a renewable energy project in their local area, and 72% of people who already live within 5 miles of a wind farm would support building more.


- New onshore wind farms would bring billions of pounds of private investment to the UK and support new jobs. For example, building the onshore wind we need to achieve net zero (30GW by 2030) would add £45bn of GVA to the economy and support 27,000 jobs by 2030, and 30,000 more in the years that follow. Given this - the CBI, MakeUK, the Federation of Small Business and the National Farmers Union – organisations representing, collectively, our economy - all support new onshore wind.


However, it is important to note that the Government has not yet decided what the new planning framework for onshore wind should be – there’s an open consultation and live discussions in Government.


We believe that – given its public popularity, manifold benefits to the UK economy and the need to tackle climate change – we should treat onshore wind like any other planning application. There’s no logical reason why onshore wind should be treated differently to other infrastructure development, particularly in the midst of the energy and climate crises we face.


Whatever the final planning framework for onshore wind, Government has to ensure it at least meets the following tests:


1. Does the new framework increase annual deployment of onshore wind? We would hope that all options being considered by Government have modelled estimates of their likely repercussions for deployment, and meet this simple initial test.


2. Does it enable communities who want onshore wind to bring proposals forward and benefit from local projects? One of the issues with the current system is that it places power in the hands of local planners, and not communities. Over 15,000 people have signed up to the Octopus scheme where people are putting up their hands and calling for a wind farm near them – in part driven by the potential to lower their bills as a result. A new planning framework should enable ‘bottom-up proposals’ so supportive communities can build their own turbines or work with developers on proposals in their area.


3. Does it enable businesses which want to use onshore wind to reduce bills? Businesses across the country have built their own farms on site to help lower their electricity costs. Onshore wind farms help keep Nissan’s car factory in Sunderland internationally competitive and Tesco’s groceries lower cost. Although many onshore wind farms are built in the countryside, we should make sure the system remains open to wind farms which could be in more industrialised and urban areas too, given the potential benefits.


4. Does it enable onshore wind development in locations where there would potentially be high electricity generation? One of the most critical arguments for enabling onshore wind development is that it will play a vital role in our electricity supply security. When asked to rank the most important considerations which should be made before building a wind farm, the public believe “the volume of clean power it produces” is more important than any other issue. Given this, and similar to point 2, it is important that the system enables those developers who understand exactly where the most efficient, viable and effective places to build wind farms to propose them.


5. Does it enable the ‘repowering’ of wind farms– where old turbines are replaced with modern, and more efficient, models? As in offshore wind, the latest onshore wind turbines are considerably more powerful and far more cost effective than their predecessors – so you need fewer modern wind turbines to generate the equivalent power of earlier models. The planning system should enable the potential replacement of old wind farms with the latest, most efficient turbines. Polling shows this is far more popular amongst the UK public (with 73% supportive) than the prospect of ‘not replacing’ them (which only 16% support).


Whatever framework is decided, industry is clear that:


- Communities will always be consulted – there is no desire in industry to weaken the local engagement that happens right from the beginning of development. Understanding the concerns and views of the local communities helps developers to design better schemes that are more popular. There are countless examples of wind farms across the UK where the shape and size of a project has been changed in response to feedback from communities.


- Visual impact, like all local concerns, will be dealt with in local planning process. Communities will be consulted from pre-application stage throughout the process – the government has good practice guidance to help communities understand what to expect – and this a large body of existing planning practice to deal with the full range of concerns and possible impacts of a wind farm.


- Wind farm proposals won’t always be large – in fact the average size of a wind farm in England is 2.7 turbines


- There will always be substantial local benefits – onshore wind projects provide local community benefits, from investment into the local economy to improved community infrastructure and the strengthening of biodiversity. As detailed above, some developers are now offering money off energy bills for those living closest to projects, others are supporting local community infrastructure, public transport or fuel poverty schemes.


- Some projects will be simply ‘repowering’ old wind farms – alongside new developments, there will be the need to repower (update) existing projects that have reached the end of their life. These sites will replace old technology with more modern and efficient turbines, meaning more power from fewer turbines.


There are very few ways Government can address the energy crisis, the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis, all at once – but that’s what new onshore wind farms would do. That’s why we need to have a measured discussion about the planning framework for onshore wind. We should be asking “what are the types of onshore wind farms this new framework would enable?”, and I hope these tests help that discussion.


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