The confusion surrounding the government's clean energy policy has today plumbed new depths - what is needed is a genuine commitment to cost-effective decarbonisation
Here is a question: will Amber Rudd be delighted or disappointed if the onshore wind industry grinds to a complete halt from next year?
Given the new energy and climate change secretary this morning announced an early end to subsidy support for new onshore wind farms through the Renewables Obligation (RO), confirmed plans to give local councils greater say over planning approval for the largest wind farms, and hinted strongly that the onshore wind farms will also be locked out of the contract for difference (CfD) mechanism, this might strike as a facetious question – it is pretty clear the government wants to kill the industry.
But the confusing signals emanating from DECC as it strives to square the instruction to cut emissions as cost effectively as possible with the instruction to halt the development of one of the most cost-effective sources of clean energy, mean it is fair to ask whether or not ministers really want to see an end to new onshore wind projects in the UK.
Rudd may have just delivered a suite of policies purposefully designed to deliver on the Tory manifesto promise to "halt the spread of onshore wind farms", but she also declared this morning that part of the government's "long-term plan to keep the lights on and our homes warm, power the economy with cleaner energy, and keep bills as low as possible for hard-working families" involved a commitment to "help technologies stand on their own two feet, not encourage a reliance on public subsidies".
Consequently, it is fair to assume Rudd wants the withdrawal of subsidies for new onshore wind farms to be seen as an example of ministerial tough love, a well-intentioned attempt to help wind energy developers that have become overly reliant on subsidies "stand on their own two feet". As such, it would be similarly fair to assume that if Rudd has miscalculated and subsidies are being withdrawn before the industry can survive without them, then she will be sorely disappointed if no more wind farms are built after next year.
Then again, maybe we should apply a literal interpretation. Perhaps Rudd is drawing attention to the fact turbines do not have two feet and deserve to fall over.
What now awaits is a course of events that is all too familiar for the UK's renewable energy industry. There will be a surge in project activity as developers rush to meet a subsidy cut deadline, a likely legal challenge to keep the lawyers' fees flowing and the story in the headlines, and a fallout period as project activity slows and we wait to see if the industry has been killed off as the doom-mongers fear or recalibrated to engineer a recovery based on reduced subsidies.
The renewables and energy efficiency industries have not always helped themselves in the past by crying wolf at the start of this cycle, only for cost reductions, corporate resilience and public demand to allow them to bounce back strongly. But this time looks different. When we accuse people of crying wolf, we often forget that at the end of the fable the boy's sheep do get eaten.
There are some straws for the wind industry to cling on to this morning. Up to 5.2GW of new projects could be built through the "grace period" exemptions to the RO deadline, which means any anti-wind farm campaigners who think the government's pledge to end new developments means there will be an immediate halt to projects are going to be left furious. Legal action could open the door for a few more projects, particularly if State Aid rules force ministers to rethink onshore wind farms' ability to access the CfD regime. And most importantly, sub-5MW projects could yet proceed under the existing feed-in tariff scheme.
However, these minor concessions to a sector that employs thousands of people and delivers power at a lower cost than virtually any other source of clean energy will be of scant comfort to the industry as it prepares to be forced out of existence.
The reality is that if Rudd really wants the industry to stand on its own two feet and prosper without subsidies, she has made this move a few years too early. There is a roadmap for the industry to deliver unsubsidised cost-competitive power in the UK by 2020, but for the next few years at least projects simply will not get built without some form of support. The industry is heading for the deep freeze, which regardless of Rudd's attempt at conciliatory words this morning is what the Tory manifesto always intended.
The talk of cutting the industry free from the dead hand of state support looks ever more like a distraction from the true reason why onshore wind farms are being singled out for special treatment: a rump of Conservative voters in rural seats do not like the look of wind turbines and the government values their opinion over the majority of people who want the lowest cost clean power available. The net result of this decision is we will get significantly less clean power for the money we all pay through the green levies on our bills. For a government nominally committed to cutting emissions at the lowest cost, this is a palpably ridiculous decision.
In all the thousands of words emanating from the Conservative Party about wind energy in recent years, one question has never been adequately answered. What exactly is wrong with the current system, which auctions subsidies to ensure they remain as low as possible and is governed by a remarkably robust planning system that almost invariably blocks inappropriately located projects?
However, the real tragedy of the government's decision is neither the confusing concealment of the true reason for the war on wind, nor the contradictions inherent in blocking the development of a popular sector while clearing the way for much less popular fracking projects.
The real tragedy is the timing. These changes come at the point when public interest in climate action has been piqued by the Pope and the Paris Summit, when the government has hit upon a politically credible plan for low-cost decarbonisation and, most crucially, when the new CfD auctioning system promises to sharply push down the cost of onshore wind energy and all other forms of renewables.
After years of complex negotiations, the UK has a framework that with some minor tweaks could push clean energy over the line and into the realms of cost competitiveness. A technology neutral subsidy auction system that incorporates energy saving as well as generation – coupled with ring-fenced support for those less mature technologies with the potential to deliver cost competitiveness – would slash the overall cost of decarbonisation. Concerns over visual impact and an over-abundance of certain technologies could be handled, as they are currently, by a democratic planning system. Throw in some of the reforms suggested this week by think tank IPPR and the recipe is there for the accelerated deployment of clean technologies and a sharp reduction in emissions at a much lower cost than the current price tag.
A truly pragmatic, one nation, centre right government would commit fully to low-cost decarbonisation and let all emissions cutting technologies compete on a level playing field. If exceptions needed to be granted and special circumstances applied to certain technologies, then ministers should offer a transparent explanation as to why.
Instead, in its first major energy policy intervention, the government has all but killed off a prospering industry, set a precedent whereby every opponent of any energy-related project will feel massively emboldened, pushed up the cost of decarbonisation while promising to do the opposite, undermined its welcome recent commitments to prioritise climate action on the world stage, and dealt a major blow to infrastructure investor confidence. And all because a relatively small minority of voters thinks wind turbines are ugly.
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