How Labour can put the wind up the Tories

How Labour can put the wind up the Tories

David Toke calls for more onshore windfarms

Labour is well placed to embarrass the Tories by attacking the Government’s war on the onshore wind industry in the UK. Despite onshore wind now being the cheapest widely available electricity source the Government is actively sabotaging the industry by refusing to allow long term contracts to be issued to wind developers. Meanwhile large subsidies are being offered to gas, coal and nuclear power stations.

Under the last Labour Government incentives were given to build up a large increase in onshore wind power, which now supplies around a tenth of UK’s electricity supply, with offshore wind and solar farms now supplying around another ten per cent of UK electricity. But right wing English Tory pressure has prevented any move towards enabling long term contracts to be issued so that new windfarms can be financed. Meanwhile the UK risks becoming increasingly dependent on supplies of gas from places like Russia and Qatar.

The Labour frontbench is beginning to realise that young people in particular want to see green energy being given a chance, and, for example, John McDonnell has recently attacked the Tories for failing  to do anything to revive support for the feed-in tariff scheme that helped people install solar panels on their roofs. But attention ought also to be turned to promoting onshore windfarms. Doing so would embarrass the Government and also sow division inside the Tory ranks. More practically, it would offer hope to people who are working in the industry that they might have a future. Places like Grimsby are benefitting from offshore wind projects which are still being built, but onshore wind factories are being closed down, the latest being the Glasgow based Gaia Wind.

Independent experts say that onshore wind can be built costing the consumer less than new large gas fired power stations. However orders have dried up because the Government is refusing to organise long term guarantees of prices paid for electricity to be generated by the wind farms. Long term contracts are needed because the technology is capital intensive meaning that while the wind is free, the money for the equipment needs to be paid for at the start of the project. Hence effective (say 15 year) long term price guarantees are needed to persuade banks to offer loans to support windfarm construction.

The majority of the capacity of UK’s onshore windfarms have been installed in Scotland. Despite the fact that the Scottish Government is keen to have more windfarms, control over what contracts are issued for electricity supply rests with Westminster. Yet it is English Tory MPs, often allied to the climate-sceptic Nigel Lawson and his ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’, that are preventing the Government from providing opportunities for onshore wind.

The Minister of State for Energy, Claire Perry, has, in recent months, been making some encouraging noises about providing some ‘contracts for differences’, CFDs as they are know in trade-jargon, available for onshore wind. They were available for onshore wind when the CfD system was launched in early 2015 but since then, while some offshore wind contracts have been awarded, onshore wind has been carved out of bidding for such contracts. Yet Perry appears to lack the required political clout to do much that changes anything, especially to overcome the vocal hostility of the climate-and-wind sceptical group of Tory MPs.

Making  a priority of embarrassing the Government over this issue should be a win-win situation for Labour. Renewable energy, including wind power, is very popular among all voters, especially with young voters. On the other hand by supporting onshore wind Labour can proclaim it is promoting consumer interests of obtaining electricity – above all clean energy – from the cheapest possible source. Attacking the Government for its failure to support onshore wind is a very good way of taking votes from the Tories. Please, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, spend some time on this! Put some real wind up the Tories!

David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics at the University of Aberdeen