Comment: Gamble on offshore

For a country that commands some of the finest wind resources in the world, England is a slouch.

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Although a recent report says the UK as a whole is granting enough planning permissions to meet its onshore wind energy targets by 2020, that forecast is only likely to become reality thanks to Scotland - the more proactive partner in the union - propping up its reluctant southern neighbour by building large wind farms on very blowy sites. The evidence in England is that Nimbys remain in charge.

England is home to 84% of the UK population, housed in just over half its land. Its population is concentrated in the south-east corner of the country - closer to four countries on the European mainland than it is to Scotland. Given the costs of investing in the transmission reinforcements necessary to export energy from remote Scottish locations to the UK's population heartland, England should be wary of relying on the Scots. The largest country in the union needs to pull its weight. This is easier written than done.

Planning control over English wind farms remains under the jurisdiction of local councils, which have become notorious for blocking projects that have a strong case for approval. There is some evidence that wind developers need to do more to win over local people and town halls. Yet the fact is that the majority of wind projects that are blocked by councils are subsequently passed by the government on appeal. This appears to suggest that local politicians are more concerned with retaining their constituents' votes than helping secure England's energy future. Given councillors' desire to be re-elected, this is understandable. But the prolonged appeals process is simply building unnecessary time and cost into a price-sensitive product. Perhaps decisions over energy development ought not remain in the hands of town halls?

There is change ahead - the Infrastructure Planning Commission comes into force this month. Yet the body will only be able to approve onshore wind farms over 50 MW, so many projects will fall under its radar and will remain in the hands of local politicians. Given this - and the fact that remaining onshore wind sites in England often fall short of other plots elsewhere in the UK - England's wind developers might be better off looking out to sea.

There is a huge opportunity to develop England's offshore sites. Many of the sites offered by the UK's seabed landowner, the Crown Estate, are world class. But the capital investment involved is eye-watering. And there is a question as to whether the government's aims to get 14 GW of offshore wind up and running by 2020 are ambitious enough to give the supply chain the confidence to pour millions in investment into an almost completely new, and therefore only partly understood, market. The risk is there, yet so are the rewards. If England harnesses the power of offshore wind, it could go from slouch to superman.

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