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Why are Government interested in onshore wind?

Nathan Bennet, Head of Public Affairs, RenewableUK

It’s so low cost that new wind farms help lower energy bills.

Onshore wind is now one of the lowest cost forms of new electricity generation – cheaper than new nuclear and gas (even before the recent price increase) and so cheap that new onshore wind farms will lower energy bills. Were the wind energy the Government currently intends to procure this summer on the grid already, energy bill payers across the country would have been £65 better off this winter.

Over 8 in 10 people are concerned about their energy bills, which have risen on average by £700 this year and look set to rise even further in the Autumn. The soaring cost of gas has shown how much consumers can benefit from cheap, fixed price renewable power with clean energy contracts set to pay back over £1bn this year. And if we want to see more savings to consumers, onshore wind is the fastest, low cost power source we have. Even before the current price crisis, boosting onshore wind was set to save consumers over £16bn this decade.

Many of the benefits of low-cost energy could be captured by local communities too. Renewable energy development RES offer a Local Electricity Discount Scheme at 20 of its wind farms, which provide around 6,000 households a reduction in their energy bill. For example, every home within a 3km radius of Wryde Croft Wind Farm, near Peterborough receives a £200 energy bill discount each year. Last month, Octopus Energy launched a new scheme offering people who opted to live near a new onshore wind farm up to £350 off their energy bill – with thousands signing up within the first couple of days.

Onshore wind farms can be built incredibly quickly.

Onshore wind and solar farms can be built in less than two years, far faster than new nuclear and gas facilities. This is particularly significant as the Government is currently deciding on the volume of new onshore wind and solar it will procure through the next Government power auctions (CfD auctions) in just a few weeks’ time. If all of the 649 onshore wind and solar projects which already have planning permission were built they would provide enough new electricity onto the grid to more than off-set our imports from Russian gas. And, crucially, new onshore wind projects could start generating power and cutting bills from next year – quicker than any other large-scale source of power.

Of course, the UK will need a mix of new low carbon technologies to end our dependency on gas and become more energy independent. The falling cost of renewable and clean technologies mean that a secure, net zero electricity system will be cheaper than depending on fossil fuels – even if gas prices go back to pre-crisis levels. That means we’ll need to ramp up offshore wind, solar, green hydrogen and other low carbon technologies. And we also need to invest in a flexible energy system that has the batteries, long-term storage, hydrogen, interconnectors, etc. But if we want consumers to start feeling benefits as soon as possible, onshore wind has to be part of the solution.

Onshore wind is very popular, UK wide and with those communities who have a wind farm nearby

Government surveys have found that 80% of people support onshore wind, with only 4% opposed.

The falling costs of onshore wind and increasing concern about climate change have made onshore wind increasingly popular in recent years. 36% of voters have a more positive opinion of onshore wind farms than they did five years ago (and this is polling conducted before the gas crisis and conflict in Ukraine). Significantly, 36% of conservative voters have a more positive opinion that five years ago.

Support remains high when you poll people who have, or might have, onshore wind farms in their local area. 67% of people would support a wind farm being built close to where they live. 68% of people in rural areas would support a wind farm being built in their local area. 72% of people who live within five miles of a wind farm support building more onshore wind farms.

What reforms are the UK Government currently considering?

Since the last general election, the UK Government have already made several important steps in supporting the development of onshore wind in Wales and Scotland by offering ‘shovel ready’ sites in each country the opportunity to bid for a Government clean energy contract through their Contracts for Difference auctions, and opening them on a yearly basis.

However, it still remains the case than the planning system in England is designed to block the development of onshore wind sites – with only 20 turbines being approved in the last five years. This is what the UK Government are considering reforming.

What does the current planning system look like in England, and why it’s so restrictive?

Since a change in policy in 2015, the planning system in England intentionally restricts the development of new onshore wind – not only on commercial scale wind projects in England, but any farmer, business or individual wishing to take advantage of low-cost clean energy.

Restrictions were set out through a small – but very significant - footnote in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which means that onshore wind was subject to two planning barriers no other type of infrastructure development in the UK has to pass.

The first, local authorities have to proactively outline suitable areas in their local development plan, and applications must only be made in these areas. Even with 90% of councils declaring Climate Emergencies, a recent analysis by Dr Rebecca Windemer at the UWE, found that only 11% of all local planning authorities in England have areas identified suitable for wind energy. Planning teams in local councils are simply not resourced and not instructed to do so.

Second, any wind farm proposal of any size (even just a single turbine) requires unanimous local support. Unanimous support might sound reasonable when you first say it, but in practice this has meant that even schemes supported by, and in some cases requested by, the vast majority and deemed acceptable by regulators can be thrown out a single person in the area opposing it.

The impact of this change to policy has been stark. In a country with a land mass of 50,000 square miles, we’ve granted planning permission for just 20 turbines in the last five years.

People want a more positive planning system, which recognises when a majority support an onshore wind development

When asked, people believe the planning system should be “broadly supporting of new renewable energy developments like onshore wind”. 70% of people in the UK agree, with only 8% opposed. This remains true in those living five miles from a windfarm, with 71% believing the planning system should support onshore development, with only 10% opposed.

Critically, the public do not like the current system in place. When given the choice, 82% of people think a wind farm should be approved “if the majority of the local community support it”. Only 9% of people would prefer the current system, where a wind farm can be blocked if only one member of the community disagrees with it.

Although we are leaving the new framework around planning in England, and the threshold for local consent, for UK Government to decide, we should be clear that:

  • Potential wind farm site proposals won’t always be brought by developers to communities - we’re seeing schemes where communities are standing up and requesting onshore wind

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

  • Communities will always be consulted - if you look at Scotland and Wales you can see how projects have changed shape a size in response to feedback from communities.

In Chapter 4 of our Onshore Wind Industry Prospectus we outlined all the other potential community benefits of having a wind farm. Not just in local jobs and investment, but many wind farm developers fund schemes to enhance the local environment, support the local transition to net zero through EV charging infrastructure, and – in recent years – COVID support programmes. It is noteworthy that 59% of people who live within five miles of a wind farm believe “people become more approving of wind farms in their local area in the years after they are built”.

Seeing the big picture: most onshore wind will not be in England

Although we would welcome any reforms to planning in England, it is worth noting that – even with reforms – we expect the vast majority of onshore wind will continue to be in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is simply because the wind resource is so much better there.

Onshore wind speed map

Furthermore, though we are looking at new onshore wind in the short term to rapidly improve our security of energy supply at lowest cost to bill payers, much of the additional onshore wind generation in the late 2020s/early 2030s will come from ‘repowering’ old wind farms. Repowering is the process of replacing older turbines, at the end of their 15-20 year lifespan, with modern, more efficient and more powerful turbines.

And we should put this all in perspective. Even if we chose to double onshore wind by 2030 (to 30GW), as has been mooted in several media outlets – there would still be far more land in the UK taken by golf courses than is taken by onshore wind farms.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget all the other benefits of onshore wind that aren’t associated with our immediate energy security. Delivering the onshore wind we need to reach net zero would also deliver a £45bn boost to GVA and support 27,000 jobs in construction, with a further 30,000 in operations and maintenance.

Achieving a target of 30GW of onshore wind by 2030 would cut 6 million tonnes of CO2 from our emissions every year (compared to the UK continuing to use gas). That's equivalent to planting a forest the size of Northern Ireland or taking a million cars off the road.



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