Are either of the contenders for UK prime minister a friend to the wind industry?

Against climate concern and what some are calling broken capitalism, a new leader of the Conservative Party — and the UK’s next prime minister — will be announced shortly, but are either a friend to the wind and wider renewables industry?

Is either candidate for the next Prime Minister of the UK a friend to the renewables industry - I doubt it, argues Sam Bowen

This summer, reality took a firm bite in the UK when temperatures exceeded 40C for the first time on record, while the war in Ukraine showed no sign of coming to an end.

There’s been significant volatility at the petrol pump, energy price cap increases and the ensuing polarisation between high-earning energy companies versus the affordability of power for homes and businesses across the UK.

Leadership hopefuls

Following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation in July, a set of leadership hopefuls laid out their bids for high office, in what has now been whittled down to a two-horse race: foreign secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. There’s been much political chatter, yet so much has been left unspoken, averted, or contradicted by both Truss and Sunak on two of the most pressing issues: the climate emergency and UK energy sovereignty. So where do they stand on renewables and climate policy?

Energy sovereignty

Earlier in the summer, Sunak — whose own response to the climate crisis is avowedly based on the advice of his teenage daughters — announced what was billed as an “energy sovereignty strategy”, a plan to be written into law to make the UK energy independent within the next 15 years.

Under his leadership, an energy security committee would be created to protect power supplies and help to cut energy bills and a dedicated energy ministry would be formed.

He would deregulate the North Sea to allow gas production to increase over vital months and fracking would be allowed where there is local consent, despite the environmental harm it causes. And he has made clear that “wind energy will be an important part of our strategy”.

Double talk?

Yet at the same time, he steadfastly supported the tightening of permitting rules for onshore wind farms in England introduced under previous British Prime Minister David Cameron, which brought into being an effective moratorium on almost all new onshore wind development in England.

While onshore wind is now allowed to compete in the UK’s contracts for difference auction rounds following several years in which it was excluded, in its energy strategy, released in April, the government chose not to bring in wholesale change to the permitting regulations.

In his own words, Sunak said: “I want to reassure communities that as prime minister I would scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore.”

However, since then he appears to have softened his stance. Just a few short weeks later, he suggested how it might be possible to scrap the ban, and that “with different economic incentives, it might be possible.”

Public opinion

This change of tack rightly, I believe, led to accusations by the Truss camp of “policy flip-flopping” on onshore wind. But it would go down well with the British public. Despite the supposedly controversial reputation of onshore wind farms for some local communities, according to Greenpeace 80% of people in the UK support using onshore wind energy, nearly half saying they strongly support it versus just 4% opposing.

Furthermore, a recent poll of Conservative Party members, by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), revealed many likely see backing both onshore and offshore wind as a chance to reduce our dependence on current high gas prices.

Attack on renewables

Despite her commitments to the UK’s Net Zero strategy, Truss has taken aim at green energy levies, suggesting they should be temporarily halted to help drive down energy bills, comments for which she has come under fire.

Like her opponent, Truss has also made critical remarks on solar farms, describing them as “paraphernalia” and a “blight” on the UK landscape and saying she would change planning laws to restrict them.

This isn’t the first time Truss has attacked renewable energy either, having introduced cuts in subsidies to solar farms while she was environment secretary back in 2014.

‘Medieval wind turbines’

We will soon know who the next British prime minister will be but what has been clear so far is this leadership race has lacked strong policy assurance and communication to ensure the renewables industry and investors can trust a new administration to lead and support them towards targets for net zero by 2030 and intentions to be energy independent by 2045.

It would seem that both candidates are out of step with a majority of people in the UK, as the research from Greenpeace makes clear, but not perhaps with some in the wider conservative party.

Writing in a paper for a think tank, former Brexit minister Lord Frost, a supporter of Truss, displayed far more questionable opinions when he claimed the next prime minister should not focus on “medieval technology” like offshore wind turbines. The government, he wrote, should stop “hectoring” people to make sacrifices to “save the planet” because “current evidence does not support the assertion that the UK faced a climate emergency.”

Sam Bowen is a senior comms professional who advised The University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit during the ‘Climategate’ scandal in 2009

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