As the UK's wind energy community celebrated its fourth gigawatt of wind energy capacity at its annual conference and exhibition, the party mood was tempered by the sobering news that planning permits for new projects had slumped to record lows. Figures released by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) revealed that the approval rate for wind farm applications have fallen to just 25% so far this year, compared with 63% in 2007.
Delegates to the 31st BWEA annual conference, held on October 20-22 in Liverpool, heard that many local authorities are failing to decide wind farm applications within the statutory time frames - forcing more developers than ever to appeal to the planning inspectorate for a decision. The inspectorate is an arm of the UK central government. Some 62% of wind projects blocked by town halls are subsequently cleared by the inspectorate on appeal, BWEA noted.
"The (local authority) planning system is broken when it comes to wind energy," said BWEA chief executive Maria McCaffery. A 25% town hall approval rate is "shocking", she said, "especially when you think that there is an approval rate of over 70% for roads, housing and supermarkets". Winning consent at appeal is expensive, slow and cumbersome for developers and frustrating for local people. "We need a fresh, new approach to local decision making where councils are not unduly swayed by vocal Nimby (not in my back yard) pressure groups, but make their judgements on the facts," said McCaffery
The rate of wind installation is speeding up, she added, but much more is needed to meet the UK's targets and secure future energy supplies. In coming years, some 33% of conventional generating capacity will be retired. If the UK is not to be over-dependent on gas, only wind is deliverable within the time frame required, she said. Already, over 20 GW of wind projects are under development, more than 7 GW of which is working its way through the planning system. But, she argued, a 25% local authority approval rate threatens the delivery of the UK's 2020 renewables targets.
As a general election year looms, the renewables policies of the UK's three main political parties figured prominently on the conference agenda. McCaffery noted that the winning party will face the huge task of modernising UK energy generation at a time of national austerity: "The challenge for our industry is to ensure that renewables are not sidelined in that debate as other forms of generation flex their political muscle."
From the governing centre-left Labour Party, former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who is also the Council of Europe's rapporteur on climate change, launched a swingeing attack on the vocal minority of opponents and anti-wind farm consultants concerned about their "chocolate box view". They are selfishly holding the country back from achieving its renewables targets, he said: "It's absolutely scandalous that three quarters of the applications are being refused. It's the highest it's ever been - and getting worse. We must do all we can to deliver faster, fairer and effective planning decisions."
Prescott favoured local renewables targets with sanctions for planning authorities that fail to meet them. He also suggested that local councils should identify suitable sites for wind development. "We cannot let the squires and gentry stop us meeting our moral obligation to pass this world on in a better state to our children and our children's children," he said. "They have had it their way for far too long. So let me tell them loud and clear: it's not your backyard any more, it's ours."
With the majority of wind farm applications lodged with rural councils controlled by the centre-right Conservative Party, Conservative shadow energy minister Charles Hendry believed that giving local communities a financial incentive to host wind farms was a better way to encourage local acceptance of the projects. His party proposed allowing communities to hold on to the business rates generated by their local wind farm, he said. He also suggested that people living near wind farms should benefit from "differential pricing" - or lower electricity bills. "We need to find ways for communities to be given a more direct share in the success of the operation," Hendry said.
As part of its "localism" agenda, which aims to devolve power from central and regional government down to local councils, the Conservative opposition says that - if elected - they would scrap the infrastructure planning commission (IPC). The newly created IPC was set up to decide large projects of national importance in England and Wales, including wind farms of 50 MW and over, and major transmission lines.
Charles Anglin, BWEA spokesman, said that if past election trends are anything to go by, there is a high chance of a hung parliament after next spring's general election, with no single party able to win outright control. If this happens, minority parties with only a handful of seats in the UK parliament could have a significant influence on national policy making. He noted that all three major parties are saying that wind developers need to look more seriously at community ownership. "Perhaps the quid pro quo for a saner planning policy and saner decision making is for the industry to come forward with clearer proposals on community ownership," he said. He acknowledged that some in the industry will be sceptical of such an approach. "But the reality is we are not going to have a choice," he said. "If we want to fend off radical change on planning policy we have to be able to give something back politically, and there is not much else on the table."
Political commentator Greg Rosen, chair of the Labour History Group, also agreed that in the lead-up to the election, the Labour government would swing behind community ownership. Rosen also noted that, when in opposition, all parties tended to favour devolving power to the local level. But once elected to government, their attitudes change. Moreover, many Whitehall officials - and the Treasury in particular - are deeply sceptical of giving local government more powers.
James Gurling, a strategist for the centrist Liberal Democrats, pointed out that, in reality, party policies have little influence over local authority decisions. "Those councils are controlled by political parties - but these are not political party decisions," he said. "(Councillors) are usually quite scared individuals with a raving bunch of the public out there who want their guts." It takes courage to vote in favour of a wind farm, irrespective of party policy, he added. Gurling called for more education for councillors to familiarise them with energy and climate-change policy.
Several speakers called for more engagement with local communities. Greenpeace policy director Doug Parr commented that while wind farms are addressing the global issue of climate change, too often local people fail to benefit from wind farm development. "The rejection rate is not going to get better if the current situation continues," Parr said. Characterising everybody who opposes wind farms as simply an ignorant Nimby is patronising and wrong, he said, adding: "Though you may profoundly disagree with them, they should not be treated with disrespect."
The path of least resistance
With the difficulties and expense associated with gaining planning consent onshore, it is little wonder that many developers have turned to the offshore sector. But in a panel debate on delivery of the UK's 2020 targets, Prashant Vaze, chief econonomist at Consumer Focus, commented: "It's a statement of our failure onshore that we are counting so much on offshore wind (to deliver UK targets)."
Both onshore and offshore wind will be needed, said Willie Heller, chief executive of Falck Renewables. But he agreed with Vaze that the reason for going out to sea is that people don't like the look of wind turbines on land. "Offshore, if you go far enough, you won't be able to see it," said Heller. "That's a cop-out."
Simon Virley, director of the Office for Renewable Energy Deployment in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), refuted wind industry accusations that the government lacks the ambition to roll out offshore wind. The criticism had followed from publication of this year's renewable energy strategy (Res). "Our ambition for offshore wind is huge," Virley said. The government wants to see growth in the sector equivalent to that of the North Sea oil and gas industries, he added.
Paul Dowling, chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy subsidiary Airtricity, agreed. "What I see there is a huge political will," he said, referring to the UK government's offshore development rounds. Dowling said there was a drive within government, not just to support development of wind farms offshore, but also to create a whole new industry. "Maybe you do not give politicians credit where credit is due," he said.
Looking ahead to 2020, there was scepticism on the panel and in the audience as to whether the UK would meet its 15% renewables target. This will require over 30% of electricity to be generated from renewables - mostly wind. Alison Kay, commercial director from National Grid, was among the optimists. National Grid forecasts 30 GW of new wind capacity by 2020 - 10 GW from offshore rounds 1 and 2 combined, 10 GW from round 3 and 10 GW from onshore wind.
The target is challenging but achievable, she said, provided there is clear certainty of direction from government - with no change in policy despite the possible change of government next year. But she warned: "When we talk to politicians there is no clear steer towards 2020." Different parties hold different views of what policies are needed to achieve the targets. "That worries me," she said.
Heller was not worried about offshore policy. His concerns were focused on implementation - particularly the changes to rules and regulations that are scaring off investors. "There is too much tinkering below the area of policy," he said. "At any point in time there is some consultation going on. The banks do not like the uncertainty." Despite "very attractive" fundamentals in the UK market, he pointed out that all countries have renewables targets and the UK is competing for investment. "Developers can vote with their feet," Heller said.
Timely development of the grid is essential to meeting the targets. Some £4.7 billion of investment will be needed to allow the network to absorb the 30 GW of wind, said Kay. This will add roughly £5 to consumers' electricity bills. "I think we have to be honest about the cost to consumers," said Kay. "It is going to cost more money certainly in the short term. But the consequences of not doing it are vast."
Transforming the network to take large volumes of renewables will involve adding two new subsea cables either side of Britain to bring wind energy down from Scotland to England, upgrading existing lines and building new overhead lines, said Kay.
The planning system is key to solving the grid issue, she added. "The IPC is absolutely vital to reform in this respect. It allows generator and transmission infrastructure applications to proceed in tandem so people in local communities get a full picture of what's needed," she said. "But I do believe we are in a good position. Providing the IPC is in place and providing there is certainty on policy for meeting those 2020 targets, I believe the grid can be there to deliver."
Taking up Kay's point on costs, Virley stressed that the government has been completely honest about the cost of grid infrastructure. "We've published the figures - a few newspapers have had them on their front pages as a result," he said. But there isn't a stable low-cost alternative, he added. "We cannot be reliant on ever-increasing imports of gas from around the world."