Government gives much more joy to onshore solar than wind

The past week has seen the media full of stories about how the Government has done a u-turn on wind power to allow windfarms to be planned in England. This is less than half true. Crippling restrictions on planning new English windfarms will remain whereas, in contrast, a less publicised announcement favouring solar farms will have much more positive impact for renewable expansion.

In order to head off a backbench rebellion among Conservative MPs the Government has agreed, in principle, to remove one of the three restrictions imposed on English windfarm proposals. It leaves the planning system in England (the rules are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) still very biased against onshore windfarms compared to other forms of energy generation.

Also, contrary to the headlines, the Government has not actually changed the policy yet – it has merely launched a consultation on some proposals with that aim, and the policy changes are limited. The Government says, in its consultation announcement, that:

‘Under the proposals, planning permission would be dependent on a project being able to demonstrate local support and satisfactorily address any impacts identified by the local community. Local authorities would also have to demonstrate their support for certain areas as being suitable for onshore wind, moving away from rigid requirements for sites to be designated in local plans.’

This need to ‘demonstrate local support’ is not a planning requirement for other energy generation projects and not, either, for new housing developments or anything else. Certainly locally owned, community, projects may benefit from this restriction since they may garner more local support, and hopefully there will be an increase in community windfarms.

However, few seriously believe that the amount of new community windfarm capacity will make up for more than a fairly small minority of the developments that will be lost because of the remaining restrictions on English windfarms. That is because of the low barrier for making successful objections to the schemes which will mean most proposals will be blocked by local authorities.  There has been some talk of schemes to enable windfarm operators to pay local residents, but it is not clear how this can happen in practice. Electricity suppliers can pay consumers for local wind power, but they will not usually be the owners of the windfarms, and so are unlikely to do so.

Moreover, a third bias against windfarms (of those introduced by the Conservatives after 2015) remains in place. All other electricity generation proposals over 50 MW in size are considered by central Government, except for onshore wind power since 2016. This exception for onshore wind will remain in place.

Indeed windfarm opponents have been relatively unconcerned about the Government’s alleged ‘u-turn’. The leading anti-windfarm Conservative MP John Hayes commented, in The Times, that ‘This is not a significant change from where we were’. Some argue that windspeeds are not high enough in many areas of England for the schemes to be economic. However the notion of ‘economic’ is an elastic one given that there is no shortage of potential wind power that is much cheaper than new nuclear power stations. Ultimately the amount of renewable energy of all sorts depends on the Government’s decisions on the amount of generating capacity it wants to bring online through issues of contracts to pay for renewable energy. There are not enough of these contracts.

By contrast the Government decided against introducing further restrictions on solar farms. This will allow them to continue a moderately rapid rate of expansion in gaining planning consent. Solar farms are being opposed on ostensible grounds of food security. However the proportion of land covered by solar farms is very small indeed, and the notion of food security acts usually acts as a cover for objections on landscape grounds.

Land in the UK is graded on a 1-5 basis in terms of potential for agriculture. The idea of reclassifying so-called grade 3b land, currently used mainly for cattle grazing, as high-value land, had been bandied around by the (now ex-) Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, under Truss. This would have induced local authorities to most likely refuse planning consent for the solar farms. The effect would be dramatic in that a high proportion of solar schemes given planning consent are placed on grade 3b land.

However, despite some initially confusing signals sent out by the latest DEFRA Secretary, Therese Coffey, this idea of restricting solar farms has been officially abandoned. This is likely to have a big impact to allow the continued expansion of solar power given that, for example, in the first eight months of 2022, some 4 GW of solar farm capacity was given planning permission – 6GW per year pro rata. That represents, on an annual basis, some 2 percent addition to UK electricity demand. Indeed, in addition to making sure that all new buildings, and as much of existing buildings, have solar pv, this will begin to develop the UK’s full potential for solar power.

By David Toke

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