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United Kingdom

Planning hurdles defeat industry -- A bad year, but some light

The new millennium began on a decidedly more optimistic note for the UK wind industry than might at first be assumed, given the country's dismal installation rate last year. Just five wind projects totalling 20 MW were built. But by the turn of the year, prospects for 2000 looked brighter: two projects came on stream in January, seven more are under construction totalling almost 35 MW, with further projects slated for installation later in the year.

Yet these figures represent only a tip of the iceberg when compared with the number of contracts awarded under the latest three rounds of the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO). Out of power purchase contracts for wind totalling over 2400 MW from the past three rounds of NFFO and the Scottish Renewables Obligation, just over 200 MW has so far been developed or is under construction.

The lucky few that reached commissioning in 1999 are mostly small in scale. The largest is in Scotland -- National Wind Power's 14 turbines at Beinn Ghlas near Oban. In England, the largest was PowerGen's seven turbines at Askam in Cumbria.

The main obstacle to progress in the UK -- particularly in England and Wales -- continues to be the intractable planning permit system. Yet overall, the tide appears to have turned, with the rate of consents at last outstripping refusals; the pattern being for projects of larger but fewer turbines.

The importance of planning was underlined during the year by three high profile cases. First, a planning inquiry finally rejected three separate applications for a total 30 MW of wind plant at Helmsdale in Highland Region. Renewable Energy Systems and M&N Windpower had spent five years negotiating in a bitter contest that divided the local community. In October, National Wind Power lost its long battle to build a 15 MW wind farm at High Moor in Durham. The proposal had local support, was endorsed by the County Council and local authority planning officers and had encountered no objections from major wildlife groups. Nonetheless it was stopped by a government minister. The company took the case all the way to the High Court, which if nothing else, had the effect of drawing the anomalies of the planning system in relation to wind energy to the government's attention.

The third case is a positive one. A single 1.5 MW turbine built by Next Generation at Swaffham, Norfolk, has become a much admired local landmark. The turbine, which affords panoramic views from a visitors platform, has enjoyed almost exclusively favourable media coverage. And the residents of Swaffham have taken it to their hearts and are keen to see more in their area.

Light ahead

Prospects for the future could improve. Under the government's new plans for a strategic approach to planning for renewables (page ?), regions are to adopt targets for renewable energy. The downside is that it could take several years for them prepare resource assessments and put development plans in place.

Until then the wind industry will have to cope under the present system where permit decisions still appear to rest on the whim of planning committees or planning inspectors who often pay scant regard to official guidance notes or government policy which stresses that renewables must, in general, be given priority.

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