A wind of change for onshore wind development?

Increasing demand for electricity means looking at the regulatory and planning restrictions that the government needs to address to encourage the development of renewable energy, in particular onshore wind, says Adrian French.

The government’s commitment to its 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target has been widely welcomed however, to avoid this being an outgoing prime minister’s parting gesture, this now needs to be matched with a clear and coordinated action plan. 

Without positive and proactive policy, enabling regulation and industry support, the opportunities that clean growth can deliver could be diluted and the world-leading 2050 target compromised. This is a key challenge for the post-Brexit government to embrace as a matter of priority.

As championed by the business select committee recently, investing in energy efficiency is a key part of the roadmap to the 2050 target. Whilst improving energy efficiency in new builds is essential, the greater challenge is dealing with the existing residual stock, alongside the significant work required to de-carbonise the heating of new and existing homes. 

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National Grid projected last week that electricity demand is expected to almost double by 2050 as we de-carbonise heating and transportation systems. The increased demand for electricity requires delivery of significant new low-carbon generation and this needs an urgent and fresh look at the planning and regulatory restrictions that have been holding back the onshore wind sector. 

Alongside other new low-carbon and renewable energy generation, including new nuclear build (SMR and AMR), biomass and solar, the government needs more new onshore wind in the UK energy mix. It also needs to facilitate standalone and co-located energy storage assets which will assist the grid with integrating more de-centralised and intermittent generation. 

The government should amend the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at the earliest opportunity, in particular to promote new onshore wind development and positively support existing wind farm re-powering and extension of life proposals. 

Planning for onshore wind is still ‘hamstrung’ by business secretary Greg Clark’s 2015 ministerial statement, which placed significant additional tests on these proposals. These included a requirement for new proposals to be located in areas identified in local plans or neighbourhood plans as being suitable for wind energy development. 

Having located in areas identified as being suitable (a significant challenge in itself), proposals face a second and potentially very difficult test, namely that following consultation, applicants are required to demonstrate that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed, and that the proposal has their backing. 

Whilst the latter is left to the local planning authority to judge, for an authority not kindly disposed to new onshore wind development, it presents an easier route to refuse rather than approve. These unnecessarily onerous and inequitable policy tests, which were encompassed in the 2018 NPPF, combined with the removal of subsidies for onshore wind, have created a high risk and unfavourable climate for investment in new onshore wind development. 

Whilst updates to the NPPF have given dispensation to these tests for proposals to re-power existing wind farms (and clarification is awaited from BEIS of the definition of re-powering), the NPPF remains, despite its pro-sustainable development bias, negative to new onshore wind. 

Much has changed since 2015. Indeed a recent survey of Conservative party members suggests that onshore wind now receives significantly greater support than fracking. Perhaps this is a realisation that having committed to a clean-growth agenda and the significant challenge of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a change of policy on onshore wind is now justified. 

Adrian French is director of planning (Energy & Infrastructure) at WYG Group - A Tetra Tech company.

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