Is Onshore Wind Back on the Renewables Menu?

A sizeable group of MPs got a little hot under the collar recently when rumours that onshore wind was about to make a comeback started to circulate. This softening of stance goes against the Tory policy of basically banning the building of wind farms anywhere in the UK except offshore. David Cameron put it in the Tory manifesto as far back as 2015 and there’s been a rush to get projects up and running by developers before subsidies run out this year.

Last year some 2.6 GW was installed across the UK onshore but, because of changes to funding, the future now looks a lot bleaker. According to industry experts, not being able to compete for subsidies will see capacity drop dramatically. In comparison, off shore wind farms will be able to compete for the £557 million that is available in subsidies.

Unfortunately, many believe that removing subsidies for onshore wind farms could add as much as £1 billion to the nation’s fuel bill. According to the Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit last year:

“Generating power from new onshore wind farms would be £100m a year cheaper than doing so from new nuclear reactors or biomass plants, and at least £30m cheaper than under the latest offshore wind-power contracts.”

How We Got Here

Once the Tories gained a majority in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron was under pressure from some in the Conservative ranks to reduce the growth of onshore wind. This came down to basic nimbyism – people didn’t want huge turbines spoiling their nice, pristine leafy suburbs and countryside. This despite the fact that polls taken around that time found that people were in favour of renewables for energy production. Getting rid of onshore wind became a clarion call for any MP that was against ‘all this green crap’ as Cameron once called it.

When you consider that an average onshore wind farm is now able to produce electricity for a £57.50 per MWh (compared to nearly £100 per MWh for Hinkley C), it’s not surprising that industry experts are trying to get their voices heard and deliver a counter argument.

The sharp fall in costs over the last few years has caused a rethink some Tory circles. Back in October, certain energy ministers began to tout the idea that onshore wind farms could make a return to the renewables mix and compete on the same level playing field as other technologies.

After all, part of the reason for reducing support like Feed in Tariffs, according to the Government, was to ensure that consumers weren’t paying too much to subsidise renewables. At half the cost of nuclear and 30% cheaper than offshore wind, that should make onshore turbines the most viable technology at the moment.

This February, however, 100 MPs wrote to the Prime Minister warning her not to walk back the policy on onshore wind. This after energy minister Claire Perry stated that they were exploring ways to deploy onshore wind for those area in the UK that want it.

The Nimby Factor

Not in my back yard or nimbyism has always played a factor in renewable energy, whether it’s for wind turbines or solar panels. That’s despite the growing consensus amongst the population at large that renewables are a pretty good thing. And it’s not simply a British thing – the same issues have come to light as far afield as Asia and America as well as the rest of Europe. The equation is generally simple – solar panels look ugly, wind turbines get in the way, we don’t want them near us.

The truth is that many people want cleaner, renewable energy – they simply don’t want it changing their own landscape. That poses a problem for technologies such as wind turbines which have earned their spurs and need to contribute to our future energy mix.

It’s likely that the Prime Minister will give in to the 100 MPs who have warned her about doing a U-turn on onshore wind – there are bigger problems at the moment that take precedence including the growing Brexit mess and her own weak position. The unfortunate thing is that, in the end, this kind of decision could cost consumers a lot of money in potentially cheap electricity.

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