As the May election draws nearer, the UK wind industry waits to see what effect the new government will have on the development of onshore wind. Back in December 2014, David Cameron told the Commons Liaison Committee of senior MPs that the Conservatives would not subsidise any new onshore turbines if they were to win the general election, claiming that the public are “frankly fed up with so many wind farms being built that won’t be necessary”.
The good news masked by the Prime Minister’s message is that the UK is more than on track to meet its 2020 targets for onshore wind deployment. The 2011 Renewable Energy Roadmap set out a targeted rise in onshore wind capacity from around 4GW in 2011 to 13GW in 2020, equating to an annual growth rate of 13%. The graph below compares the roadmap forecast with the actual deployment of onshore wind.
A published extract from DECC’s Renewable Energy Planning Database (REPD) shows that the UK had a total onshore wind capacity of 8.2 GW in February 2015, much higher than the 6.8 GW required to keep pace with the Renewable Energy Roadmap. David Cameron isn’t quite right when he says that additional onshore wind “won’t be necessary”, but the progress made so far means that an annual growth rate of only 9.4% is now needed to meet the 2020 target. Easy, right?
Don’t count your chickens just yet. Delving deeper into the data we see a significant slowdown in onshore wind deployment over the past eighteen months. Why is this?
The road to recovery
The reason appears to be largely the actions of Eric Pickles. As Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), he has the power to intervene in planning applications, mainly via the ‘recovery’ of planning applications that have gone to appeal. The Secretary of State can take decision-making power away from the Planning Inspectorate, and instead make the final decision himself, taking into account the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendations. Mr Pickles also has the power to take over (‘call in’) planning applications rather than letting the local authority decide, or to issue ‘holding directions’, in order to consider them before deciding whether to call them in.
Since taking new powers in October 2013, ostensibly to test whether new planning guidance met the Government’s aims, Mr Pickles has been hard at work intervening in onshore wind planning applications – he has clocked up more than 50 to date. According to RenewableUK he is recovering around 80% of wind farm capacity at appeal stage. The Secretary of State has issued 37 decisions on these recovered projects, with a refusal rate of 89%, with 11 of these refusals being against the planning inspector’s advice. The latest refusal was a nine turbine development in East Lindsey, Lincolnshire. For comparison, the average refusal rate between 2010 and 2013 was 52%.
Beyond reasonable doubt
The impact of these interventions on the growth rate of onshore wind is clear – the annual growth rate of onshore wind capacity has steadily reduced since August 2013, and, at 9.6% in 2014, is now below the 13% annual growth rate anticipated in the Renewable Energy Roadmap.
Decision-makers at both local and appeal levels are becoming increasingly reluctant to approve wind farms, despite there having been no significant change in planning policy. In 2014, only 51% of onshore wind applications were approved, down from 67% in 2013. The change can be attributed in large measure to the impact of Mr Pickles’ interventions – there is little point approving a project if your decision will simply be overturned. The Secretary of State, who introduced the Localism Act, might not be the person you would expect to need to remind that excessive intervention from Westminster runs contrary to the democratic and locally accountable principles of the planning system.
Mr Pickles’ actions are also creating significant uncertainty for investors in the UK’s wind energy industry. They can hardly fail to pick up the message that there is some kind of planning problem, but far harder for them to work out how to adapt projects to make them more likely to succeed. No clear rationale has been given for Mr Pickles’ negative interventions, or for the increased local refusal rate of onshore wind projects. If there has been a policy change, the government should update planning guidance accordingly to enable investors to plan effectively. At the moment the change in practice gives the impression of being arbitrary, which is far from reassuring.
For the keen onshore wind developer, successfully negotiating the Mr Pickles-infested waters of the planning process is not the end of the challenges. The UK electricity grid was designed to provide ‘top down’ generation. In this model, large centralised power plants are connected to the ‘transmission network’ which feeds power to a number of distribution networks for supply of power to homes and businesses. There are 14 distribution networks in the UK, each responsible for electricity supply within a specific regional area. However, the system is not designed with the ability to reverse the ‘top down’ flow of energy – electricity cannot be fed from the distribution network back into the transmission network.
The majority of renewable electricity is supplied directly to the distribution network, and so can only be used within the local distribution network into which it is fed. If renewable electricity generation leads to electricity supply exceeding demand in one distribution network, the surplus cannot be diverted for use in another area of the country.
Renewable generation capacity is being connected faster than the grid network can adapt, leaving large areas of distributed grid networks ‘saturated’ with distributed generation to the point where new connections are now being placed in waiting lists and developers are competing for capacity.
This problem can only be solved by investment. That might take the form of new grid infrastructure, to enable the ‘reverse flow’ of energy through the distribution and transmission system. Alternatively, energy storage technologies could provide a solution by smoothing the output of generators to avoid unmanageable peaks in electricity supply. Such investment will be needed even if the next government is dead set against onshore wind, since the same constraints apply to almost all renewables, including solar photovoltaics (PV), which has experienced huge growth.
Given a fair wind…
However, it is interesting to learn that “frankly” the public is far less “fed up” with onshore wind than the Prime Minister might have us believe, and a party that opposes it might not be on to a vote winner. Despite the negative political narrative around onshore wind, it remains a popular technology. The latest government survey shows that public support is at 68% for onshore wind farms, compared with 74% for offshore.
However, all that negativity is having a more subtle effect. A recent survey by RenewableUK found that when asked to estimate the level of public support for wind power, the respondents said on average that it was only around 40%. The polling also demonstrated that people radically overestimate the cost of Government support for onshore wind power. When asked to state how much of a typical £1,300 annual dual-fuel energy bill goes on wind support, the average estimate was £259, some 14 times higher than RenewableUK’s calculation of around £18 a year. One wonders how many more people would be supportive if they had a more accurate perception of the costs.
The words and actions of David Cameron, Eric Pickles and others within the Government serve to cast the future of onshore wind power into doubt. Meeting the 2020 target for onshore wind set by the Renewable Energy Roadmap requires significant further investment, and it will be difficult to decarbonise as cheaply or as quickly with any other technology. It should be a clear priority of the next government to provide more certainty to developers so that the impressive progress made in the early days of the Roadmap can be built upon.