Small projects facing contrasting fortunes

UNITED KINGDOM: As permitting constraints in the UK have been reducing the average size of new wind farm applications, the government's proposed changes to financial incentives for wind energy are threatening to make smaller schemes unviable.

The average size of new schemes in England is now just 7MW, according to RenewableUK's latest State of the Industry report, published at the end of October. This compares with 11.5MW in 2009-10 and a high of 12.9MW in 2008-09. Average capacity per application in Scotland has fallen by more than 40%, in the year to July 2011 to an average of just over 13MW, while average capacity per proposed scheme in Wales has fallen by 55%, to 35MW.

RenewableUK believes the onshore wind industry may have peaked in terms of developing large sites. In addition, the trade body has noted a new trend, particularly in England, where smaller schemes are receiving more favourable consideration while proposals for larger projects are increasingly likely to be rejected (see graphic).

On average, only 42% of proposed capacity across all schemes decided at local-authority level in the UK is currently being approved. Approval rates in England are significantly lower than in other parts of the UK, with just 26% of capacity approved.

But smaller projects look likely to be threatened by government plans, announced in October, to reduce the number of renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) allocated to onshore wind projects to 0.9 per megawatt hour.

"The cut in ROCs will probably result in fewer smaller projects going forward. Smaller developers will have more difficulty getting bank finance on lower ROCs," said Gemma Grimes, planning adviser at RenewableUK.

The figures come as RenewableUK launches a campaign to gain public support for wind energy and fight back against misleading stories about wind in the press. The board leading the Action for Renewables campaign comprises notable UK environmental campaigners, including former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper and Greenpeace director John Sauven, as well as pro-wind politicians.

Meanwhile, new research has revealed that ecology is an issue in 81% of wind farm appeals. Ecological consultants Baker Shepherd Gillespie (BSH) reviewed 84 planning inspector reports issued over the past ten years. The impact on birds were the main reason for refusal in three cases, while a threat to bats was the principal reason for refusal in two cases.

In 22 cases, the inspector cited birds as a main reason for refusing an appeal even when it had not been a reason for the original refusal by the council. This was because a third party had raised it as an issue at appeal.

In seven of the cases reviewed by BSH, initial objections from nature conservation bodies Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage were withdrawn once additional information was supplied by the developers in question.

Aeden Smith, head of planning and development at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, backed these findings. In many cases, he said, insufficient information from the developer forced it to object to wind farm proposals. The situation was improving as larger developers gained expertise, he added. But developers of small projects remain insufficiently familiar with the demands of the permitting process.