John Hayes insists that the existing and planned windfarms are sufficient to meet the government’s renewable energy targets and that no more are needed. Says Hayes, “Even if a minority of what’s in the system is built we are going to reach our 2020 target. I’m saying enough is enough.”
But, his boss, Energy Secretary Ed Davey, was quick to slap down the party pooper and advised him that in no uncertain terms was he to decide government policy.
A source close to Mr Davey says “John does not decide government policy. There will be no change. We are in a coalition government, not a single party government and definitely not a single minister government. We are determined to make sure the coalition lives up to the Prime Minister’s pledge to make it the greenest government ever.” Davey is in support of onshore wind, explaining that it is one of the cheapest renewables and has an important role to play in the UK’s energy future.
But what is Hayes’ beef with onshore wind turbines?
Well, firstly, he is concerned that turbines are being “imposed” on local communities. Other worries include the “effects” of turbines on the landscape. He claims that these windfarms may cause house prices to dive as turbines are not aesthetically pleasing and are noisy. He is also worried that turbines may block radar signals, endangering military aircraft. He has asked that research be carried out on these concerns. He adds that the controversy surrounding turbines is giving other renewable sources such as offshore wind, solar and tidal power a bad name. Calling himself the “people’s minister”, he says that he “…can’t single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.”
Hayes does not stand alone in his quest against onshore wind farms. In February, over 100 Conservative backbenchers called for the prime minister to cut the £400m a year public subsidies for windfarms and Treasurer George Osborne recently called for a dramatic cut in government subsidies for onshore windfarms. The Duke of Edinburgh, Tory MP Chris Heaton Harris and Former Conservative Chancellor Lord Lawson, as well as locals around the country have also announced their disdain at windfarm constructions.
However, it seems as if the vast majority of the UK’s population is still in support of windfarms even if they are erected a few miles from their homes. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times reveals that 69% of the public want the current level of wind increased or maintained. Only 17% of people support more gas and coal power stations, while a small percentage agree with Hayes that windfarms shouldn't be imposed on communities.
Is community-ownership the way to go?
Perhaps Hayes is on to something as far as community involvement is concerned. Polls show that when communities feel like they have a stake in these projects, there tends to be more support for wind projects. According to an ICM poll, 49% of people would support a wind turbine within two miles of their home, but if the project were community-owned, support rose to 68% and opposition dropped to 7%.
In Germany, 65% of its renewable energy capacity is community-owned and opposition to wind projects is rare. Davey has been saying all the right things on community ownership and the Conservatives 2010 manifesto states:"We believe in allowing communities to be active participants in, as well as beneficiaries of, onshore wind development."
Unfortunately, the policies are yet to be put in place. To remedy this, the UK government should eliminate its complicated contracts for difference and instead, introduce fixed feed-in-tariffs. This still proves to be the most cost-effective policy for developing the renewable power sector.
The UK boasts some of the best wind sources globally. Onshore wind accounts for the largest part of the country’s renewable power generation. Currently, the UK is home to 320 onshore windfarms (approximately 3,800 operating turbines), with many more awaiting construction or planning permission. Approvals have reached record levels. According to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), the turbines generate electricity 70-85% of the time and last year saw 3.5 million households receiving electricity from wind power. One turbine can power over 1,000 homes in a year, reports BWEA. It would therefore make sense that the British government aims to increase the amount of power produced by onshore wind farms to 13GW by 2020.
Apart from the significant generation potential, wind power creates employment, energy security and obvious environmental benefits. Wind power saves approximately 6.1m tons of carbon emissions over the course of a year – about 4% of UK emissions from electricity, reports the Guardian. DECC's reports indicate that onshore wind is one of the UK’s cheapest renewable technologies. While the price of fossil fuels is climbing, onshore wind costs are falling – the reason for government’s 10% subsidy cut. Ofgem and the climate change committee show that the rise in wholesale gas prices is the main culprit when electricity bills increase and not subsidies for renewables.
Michael Liebrich, chief executive of analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance, is also quick to point out that for onshore wind to be even more competitive than fossil fuels; the UK government must construct them on a large scale, plan fast and develop good grid connections. He says this is what makes the US windfarms much cheaper than the UK’s.
It is clear that the UK government has its eyes firmly set on its renewable energy targets and not even Hayes has the ability to knock it off course. However, the facts point to a a prorgamme of better community engagement to swing it for wind. The UK must remain steadfast in his support of renewables and be transparent in its energy policies. The government must prove that home-grown energy makes more sense than a growing reliance on pricey and volatile fossil fuel imports.