David Toke says Tory opposition to onshore wind is just the tip of the iceberg in their failure on green energy
The continued refusal of the UK Government to rescind rules that virtually ban the deployment of onshore wind in England is emblematic of an inability to translate words on achieving its ‘net zero’ strategy into action. Leaving its commitment to the principle of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 aside, new policy initiatives, as opposed to setting long-term targets, appear surprisingly meagre.
The Conservative-led governments since 2010 have done very little to shift the curve on renewable energy and energy efficiency (beyond what had already been found), and in fact done much to constrain it.
It is a sobering fact that almost all of the renewable energy deployed by the end of 2020 was funded under schemes established by the preceding Labour government (the Renewables Obligation and Feed-in-Tariff). The Government is keen to advertise its support for offshore wind. Yet all of the offshore wind deployments so far have been drawn from the 48GW-worth of offshore wind leases awarded during the time of the last Labour government. The only leasing round organised by the Conservative Government, in 2021, leased a mere 8GW in English waters. The trade association Renewable UK commented that “[t]he result of this leasing round shows that while demand for new offshore wind projects has never been higher, too few sites were made available to meet this demand”.
In 2022, some 25GW of UK offshore wind leases were awarded, but this was organised by the Scottish Government. The Government has also failed to launch a major energy conservation programme. In 2013, the Cameron government presided over the closure of the energy company obligation set up by the Labour government which had achieved many times the levels of home energy conservation measures being achieved now. Indeed, it is in this period, in the first part of post-2010 Conservative rule, that the campaign to stop onshore wind gathered pace.
In fact, conditions seem very ripe for an enthusiastic turn towards greatly encouraging deployment of onshore wind power in the UK. First, electricity prices for natural gas are surging. Second, generation costs for new onshore wind have declined to well below that of power from natural gas, even before the recent gas price spike. Third, the policy of reducing reliance on natural gas in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has assumed supreme importance in national priorities. Fourth, the UK needs low-carbon means of achieving the ‘net zero’ by 2050 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the Government refuses to countenance the lifting of the effective ban on onshore wind deployment in England. How can we explain this policy impasse, and what is its wider significance?
Despite Conservative policies blocking onshore wind, it is an important contributor to UK electricity production. Altogether, onshore wind farms in the UK provided around 10 per cent of UK electricity production in 2020. This is from roughly 14GW of onshore wind capacity. Just over a fifth of installed onshore wind farm capacity is installed in England, whilst just over three-fifths is installed in Scotland.
The Conservatives’ 2010 ‘modernising’ manifesto, which embraced green political objectives, was positive about onshore wind, talking about “allowing communities that host renewable energy projects like wind farms to keep the additional business rates they generate for six years”. Yet by 2015, a bias against onshore wind farms was made clear. The 2015 Conservative manifesto proclaimed its aim “to stop the spread of onshore wind farms”, and that “we will end any new public subsidy for them and change the law so that local people have the final say on wind farm applications”. Incentives were removed from onshore wind in the whole of the UK, while the planning ban was implemented just in England, since the other British nations have authority over planning.
Simon Evans from Carbon Brief has recently analysed the impact on energy consumers resulting from the Cameron government’s clampdown on measures to improve home energy conservation and increase deployment of onshore wind. Far from saving money, he estimates that by the end of 2022, this policy will be costing energy consumers £60 a year. On top of this, the Government’s own opinion surveys, taken at the end of 2021, indicate 80 per cent support for onshore wind, with only 4 per cent opposed. A 2019 opinion poll (commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network) suggested that this level of support for onshore wind is approximately replicated even among Conservative voters.
In many ways, it seems strange that the close alignment of the aim of deploying onshore wind as much as possible with so many key policy objectives is not allowing policies decided in a different context to be altered. However, this oddness is explained by the strategy of the Tory leadership to square the circle caused by the need to show their green credentials whilst doing little to take on the ‘net-zero’ sceptics within their own party. The planet and energy consumers in general are the losers.