Given the government is already cutting subsidies for onshore wind farms and enforcing tough planning rules, there is no case for a blanket ban on development
Take a train journey pretty much anywhere in the UK and two things become quickly apparent: this is indeed a green and pleasant land, and significant parts of it are neither.
Around many of our cities, motorways, rail lines, out of town shopping centres, power stations, ports, and factories there is often found acre after acre of brownfield, semi-rural or semi-industrial land that is underutilised and underpopulated. I would never display the lack of manners characteristic of Tory peers and dismiss this land as "desolate", but even if beauty is always in the eye of the beholder you would be hard pressed to find many people willing to defend these areas' aesthetic appeal.
If you take a similar journey in many parts of Europe you will find these areas are used to great effect to generate clean energy through the deployment of small scale and often community-owned wind farms, but in the UK such installations remain about as rare as an MP's apology. This presents a huge opportunity to utilise semi-industrial and semi-rural areas to harness the UK's broadly excellent wind resources, generating clean energy, jobs, and investment in the process. However, it is an opportunity that a Prime Minister who is nominally committed to localism, tackling climate change, and cutting energy bills is about to dismiss out of hand.
According to various reports, David Cameron is highly likely to include a commitment to effectively "ban" new wind farm developments post-2020 in a desperate attempt to keep restive anti-wind backbenchers happy. It remains unclear how this ban will be imposed, but the most likely option seems to be a cap on the amount of power onshore wind farms can generate.
Perversely, this could be spun as something of a victory for the renewables sector, on the grounds the proposed "compromise" with those Tory MPs who want an immediate moratorium on onshore wind would allow the 8.2GW of wind farms currently in the planning system to continue to move forward. Meanwhile, green Tories appear to have secured a commitment from the Prime Minister for continued support for other forms of renewables, such as offshore wind and solar, post-2020 even if they cannot get him to agree to a decarbonisation target for the power sector. But if this is a victory it threatens to be a particularly hollow one, as the proposed ban will only serve to push up the cost of the clean energy transition while also undermining increasingly successful efforts by the industry to work with communities to tap into the consistently high levels of public support renewables projects receive.
In addition, it begs the question as to why a Conservative Prime Minister who rode into office on the promise of a greener government and increased localism is pursuing such a statist means of crushing a popular clean technology that typically commands over 60 per cent public support?
The answer is that the combination of improved wind turbine technology, staggering inconsistency at the heart of Conservative energy policy, and the Prime Minister's desperate attempts to appease the right of his own party have boxed him into a corner. He has evidently decided the UK should restrict the development of onshore wind farms to keep Conservative Party members happy, only to find that the tools for doing so are strangely limited.
Cameron could, of course, seek to cut subsidies for onshore wind farms in an attempt to undermine the financial case for onshore wind development. But here's the thing - cuts are already happening. Subsidy levels were reduced last year as the cost of wind energy fell and the government is now planning to move to a system of auctioning support contracts that will reduce subsidy levels further. In fact, if the experience in Brazil and other countries that have used auctioning is anything to go by, this approach could lead to increased wind farm investment as it only serves to highlight how well-located onshore wind farms are one of the most cost-effective forms of renewables - so much so that they can sometimes even undercut gas power on cost. You could, of course, deny onshore wind farms any form of subsidy, but that would deal a major blow to the government's entire electricity market reform programme, spark all kinds of legal repercussions, and torch what remains of the Prime Minister's green credentials.
Alternatively, Cameron could use the planning system to make it even harder to develop wind farms. But again, this is already being done. Local communities have numerous courses of action available when trying to block wind farm developments and UK planning rules are among the most robust in the world, rightly requiring planning committees to take account of everything from wildlife impact to aesthetic considerations. Any attempt to tighten planning laws still further for onshore wind farms alone would invite very awkward questions as to why the government is singling onshore wind farms out for special treatment at a time when it is planning to tear up subterranean property rights for householders in order to make life easier for fracking developers. Why should the concerns of someone worried about a turbine on the horizon be more important than someone worried about the solidity of their own home's foundations?
That leaves Cameron with some form of a moratorium as the only available tool should he want to bring an end to onshore wind farm development. But even here, it is not as simple as banning or capping new developments. You could seek to cap the amount of power that will be subsidised each year, but how do you set the cap when wind power output varies each year? And what do you do if falling onshore wind energy costs and rising fossil fuel costs make projects viable even if subsidy payments are capped three quarters of the way through the year? Alternatively you could just bluntly cap the amount of onshore wind power taken onto the grid each year. But why would a country that is trying to decarbonise turn off clean energy assets or block their future development? Does the cap only cover new projects or would it also apply to upgrades at existing sites as next generation wind turbines promise to deliver more power?
All these questions would need to be answered, and that is before you even get onto the wider point, raised by former Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne this morning, around how the Tories can justify arbitrarily blocking the development of one of the cheapest forms of renewables, while simultaneously cutting support for energy efficiency and promising more support for much more costly offshore wind?
Of course, the Prime Minister is right on one thing: there will come a point when the public will say "enough is enough" when it comes to onshore wind farm development. There will come a point at which either all sites that are suitable from both a technical and aesthetic perspective have been developed or public support for onshore wind weakens so much that it becomes democratically unacceptable for development to continue (although, if coal, fracking, and nuclear is anything to go by, this public support threshold is remarkably low). But Cameron does not have a crystal ball - he cannot know when this point will come. If he did have such powers of prophecy then he could propose a ban for that point, at the same time as quietly reshuffling those ministers who will one day embarrass him with their innumerate inability to understand how expenses work.
But currently he cannot know whether the UK will need more or less onshore wind energy in the 2020s. The rollout of several more gigawatts of capacity over the next six years may make onshore wind farms as unpopular as coal power is now. But equally the success of community-owned projects, an oil price shock, or a nuclear disaster may make wind farms more popular than ever. Cameron understands the need to keep energy options open perfectly when he is praising the potential of fracking and carbon capture and storage, and yet for some reason the same rationale cannot be applied to onshore wind.
Instead he is apparently pursuing plans for a blanket ban that would be statist, costly, and very likely unworkable. But most of all he is trying to solve a problem that does not exist. We already have a policy framework that will drive down subsidies and impose strict planning requirements on developers. Why not just let it do its job? Let auctions ensure that only the best located and most efficient new projects are financially viable and let planning committees decide whether new projects are in the wider interests of the communities in which they are located. Let those projects that have secured sizable community support proceed in the same way that you let fracking, nuclear or new road projects proceed, and block those projects that are genuinely inappropriate, precisely as already happens.
Don't let a vocal minority completely derail a decarbonisation strategy that is in everyone's interests. And don't let backbench dinosaurs turn a Prime Minister who once promised to deliver a new era of environmentalism and localism into a hypocrite.
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