The ban on onshore wind in the UK also seems contrary to its aims of empowering local communities and tackling the climate crisis.
- Soaring energy prices and the threat of blackouts are prompting the lifting of a ban on onshore wind farms in the UK.
- Small wind farms have simpler application processes and can be built in around six months.
- Onshore wind is one of the cheapest sources of energy in the UK.
- For news and analysis on climate change, visit News24 Climate Future.
A pig feed manufacturer in England has accomplished an almost impossible feat for nearly a decade, positioning it at the forefront of a shift in UK renewable energy policy.
Manor Farm Feeds’ rare achievement was obtaining permission to install a wind turbine. While Yorkshire society may currently be an outlier, soaring energy prices and the threat of blackouts are spurring the reversal of a seven-year ban on onshore wind farms in the UK.
Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to ease planning restrictions, with April energy bills expected to be more than triple what they were before Russia invaded Ukraine. A growing number of Tory lawmakers, including Sunak’s predecessors, are calling for change, although it’s unclear when Downing Street will act.
At around a quarter of the cost of wholesale electricity prices, onshore wind is one of the cheapest sources of energy in the UK, and its expansion could help ease inflationary pressure. The ban on onshore wind has also seemed increasingly out of step with Britain’s goals of empowering local communities and tackling the climate crisis.
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Tiny wind installations like the one at Manor Farm are being put in place quickly, already promising the potential for tangible relief for next winter when government subsidies for energy bills are lower. This is eroding opposition from local authorities, which have traditionally been the biggest obstacle to wind farm approvals. The Manor Farm permit is a good example.
“This app has proven that the community can accept new onshore wind turbines,” said Chris Calvert, executive director of Pegasus Group, a consulting firm that helped with the project. He also sees pent-up demand from other clients, but few are actually pursuing projects. “The planning policy puts them off, which I think is a great shame,” he said.
The feed manufacturer, located about 15 miles east of Leicester, managed to overcome the legal blockade in October for two main reasons: there was a turbine on the property which predated the ban, and 98% of the local community supported a second. While few other sites have the same prerequisites, such small wind farms could sweep England if the ban is lifted.
Given the windy climate of the countryside, even a single wind turbine can have an impact.
Octopus Energy Group, which builds renewable power plants and supplies electricity to homes, matched thousands of applications with relevant characteristics such as wind speed and grid capacity, and found enough sites to add at least 2.3 gigawatts of new capacity. This represents nearly 16% of the UK’s current onshore wind farm and enough to power over 1.8 million homes.
“Our model predicts smaller wind farms closer to people, where electrons travel shorter distances and they can get the energy cheaper,” said Zoisa North-Bond, CEO of Octopus Energy Generation. “We could really speed that up.”
The company’s estimate is probably conservative, as it’s based on a small 1-megawatt turbine per mast. Manor Farm’s new wind turbine is expected to be more than four times larger. If this is the base case, a network of tiny wind farms could satisfy the electricity demand of more than 7 million UK homes.
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Small wind farms have a few key advantages in England. According to industry group RenewableUK, local support is easier to secure than for a large field of disruptive masts, and the application process can be simpler, taking just six months. Once approved, the construction of a wind turbine takes about six months longer, which means that it is possible that a rule change could have a noticeable impact within a year.
“There really is demand at the community level,” said James Robottom, onshore wind manager at RenewableUK. “A change in planning will begin to build investor confidence in the industry.”
England is not as windy as Scotland and has a lot more people, so there is not as much space to build giant projects. But large-scale developers are still keen to invest in England again. Most of the UK’s population is there, so the projects don’t need to send electricity that far. This proximity reduces the costs that developers have to pay to use the electricity network.
“If the ban were to be lifted, we would be looking to build across England,” said Frank Elsworth, UK onshore development manager at Swedish utility Vattenfall AB. “It’s a bona fide solution for this decade.”
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