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UK election spells bad news for onshore wind

UK: The future for onshore wind power in the UK is looking decidedly bleak following the general election last month, which resulted in a clear, if narrow, majority for the Conservative Party.

New energy minister Amber Rudd could struggle to implement election promises while meeting EU renewables targets (pic: Decc)
New energy minister Amber Rudd could struggle to implement election promises while meeting EU renewables targets (pic: Decc)

The new government is moving quickly to honour its manifesto pledge to "halt the spread of onshore wind farms", by introducing legislation that will rule out subsidies for any new projects and shift consent for large wind farms from central government to local planning authorities, which will be duty-bound to consult residents. Amber Rudd, the new senior minister of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), expects the legislation to be enacted by parliament in mid-2016.

The legislation will not affect the onshore wind farms currently under construction, or the pipeline of consented projects, which amount to 1.45GW and 5.62GW respectively, according to trade association RenewableUK. But the prospect of any further onshore wind development being sanctioned looks unlikely during the lifetime of this government.

Behind the decision to pull the rug from under onshore wind's feet lies the new government's calculation that the UK has sufficient renewable energy capacity already installed or in the pipeline to meet its 2020 EU targets. The UK has committed to generating 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020, but this is an overall energy target that includes transport and heating. Unless entirely unforeseen progress is made in these areas, the UK will need to generate at least 30% of its electricity from renewables to hit that target (see below).

Rudd's appointment to the top job in the energy ministry - she served as a junior minister in the previous coalition administration - has been broadly welcomed by the UK's renewables sector. She knows the patch and, in the jargon, she "gets climate change". Although Rudd professes to personally quite enjoy seeing wind turbines, and does not consider them an eyesore, she has made it quite clear that she intends to honour the Conservatives' manifesto pledge. In case there was any room for doubt, the new junior minister in the energy department is Andrea Leadsom, who has been a vocal critic of onshore wind in the past, describing it as being unreliable, more expensive than nuclear power and damaging to wildlife.

The government's opposition to onshore wind is particularly hard to fathom given its commitment to protect the environment at the "lowest possible cost". Its own figures show that onshore wind is the cheapest large-scale renewable energy available. The fixed prices, or strike prices, guaranteed for electricity produced by renewable projects selected under the first contracts for difference (CfD) auction in February averaged about £80/MWh (€112/MWh) for onshore wind farms, on the same level as solar PV. Two solar projects that won contracts for £50/MWh have since been shelved after the developers looked at the figures more carefully. And solar only makes economic sense in the southern part of the country. By contrast, offshore wind's strike price in the same auction averaged £117/MWh. While this was rather less than the government had been expecting, it is still 46.25% more expensive than onshore wind.

As for nuclear, the strike price for the new Hinkley Point C plant was set at an inflation-linked £92.5/MWh last year. Contrary to Leadsom's belief, onshore wind is already considerably cheaper than nuclear and that gap looks more likely to grow than diminish.

The government's opposition to onshore wind cannot be claimed to be running with the grain of public opinion either. According to figures published in February by Decc, 68% of the British public support onshore wind with only 10% resolutely opposed. A YouGov poll, reported in the Sunday Times newspaper last month, was less clear cut, but it still found support for onshore wind to outweigh opposition.

Friends of fracking

The government's medium- to long-term energy strategy has yet to be clearly outlined, but there seems little doubt that the development of shale gas will feature heavily. Although coal's role is diminishing, it still accounted for nearly 30% of the UK's electricity generation last year, but rather than replace dirty and ageing coal-power stations with renewables capacity, the government is aiming to transition to "low-carbon" energy through increased use of gas and nuclear power.

However, whether large-scale shale gas extraction in Britain is feasible, let alone economically worthwhile, is still a matter for debate and a great deal more research. It will take several years of exploratory drilling to establish its credentials as a viable future energy source. In the meantime, the UK public has already shown very strong resistance to the prospects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the countryside. According to Decc, fewer than one in four people support the development of shale gas. Yet, while subsidies for onshore wind are now out, they are most definitely in for shale gas. Rudd has already suggested the government would look again at compensation for communities affected by fracking, which currently stands at an average of £800,000 for each proposed well.

How this will play out in Scotland is another unknown. The UK's three major parties were all practically wiped out from Scotland in the election, holding just one seat apiece, while the remaining 56 seats fell to the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP, which also holds an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament, strongly supports onshore wind and has called for a moratorium on fracking.

The Scottish question

More than 60% of the UK's onshore wind capacity is installed in Scotland - just over 5GW at the end of 2014, according to trade association Scottish Renewables. A further 4GW has been consented, making up most of the overall UK pipeline. Another 3.6GW was at the planning stage, but this must now be considered at risk.

Scotland has different planning laws to the rest of the UK, and so will be unaffected by the planned legislation change to give local authorities the final say on onshore wind farms. But the ending of subsidies to new projects will cover the whole country, unless the SNP can negotiate some form of opt-out clause in its talks with the UK government for the further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament.

Scotland is particularly dependent on onshore wind. It has only 197MW of operating capacity offshore, and while it has more than 4GW in the pipeline in consented developments, only two - the 664MW Beatrice and 450MW Neart na Gaoithe projects - have passed through the CfD process.

Energy policy and climate change did not featured on the radar of this election campaign, which was dominated by claim and counter-claims over the health or otherwise of the UK economy, and endless speculation over which party or parties would hold the balance of power in the event of a hung parliament, which, all the opinion polls had confidently, but wrongly, predicted in the months leading up to the election. But energy could shift up the agenda in the build-up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in December.

Rudd will be charged with helping to secure a strong deal to counter global warming at that summit. But she will have to do that from a position of favouring fossil-fuel extraction over the cheapest form of large-scale renewable energy. That does not look like the best place from which to lecture other countries on their energy and environmental policies.



Renewables accounted for 19.2% of the UK's electricity generation in 2014 with wind contributing nearly half of that (9.3% of the total) from 7.95GW of onshore capacity and 4.65GW offshore.

If everything in the consented pipeline goes ahead on schedule - by no means a given - that would take the UK's onshore installed capacity to around 15GW by 2020. Assuming the 2020 offshore wind target of 10GW is also met - again, not a certainty - that would provide the UK with an absolute maximum of 25GW of installed wind capacity, which is probably sufficient to generate at least 18% of the country's electricity.

That leaves the other renewable sources - solar PV, biomass and hydro - a combined target of at least 17GW to make up the shortfall. That certainly looks possible. Together they provided 11.6GW of installed capacity at the end of last year, but it does not leave much room for error, especially if wind power falls short of 25GW. And, it is worth noting here that trade association RenewableUK prefers a more cautious estimate for overall wind capacity by 2020 - "above 20GW" it says.

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