UK Energy policy turned on its head

Thomas Middleton’s play, A Mad World, My Masters, is a satirical tale of life in early 17th-century London.  It tells the story of underhand tactics used by a group of characters to manipulate influence in the pursuance of wealth and power.   The Royal Shakespeare Company has updated the play to contemporary London, where it enjoyed rave reviews at a short season at the Barbican during the week of the General Election in May.

It’s difficult not to see some similarities between the fictional plot of Middleton’s play and the actions by DECC and CLG ministers over the past week.  Whilst the analogy falls short of the decadence of individual characters in the play, there is a strong element of farce, slapstick, confusion and ruthless disregard of consequences evident in the rushed delivery of general election manifesto pledges to end development of onshore wind turbines.

planning-turbines

Policy changes

Two Government announcements were made on 18 June.  The first, by Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, outlined plans to close the Renewables Obligation (RO), which requires electricity suppliers to source an increasing proportion of their energy from renewable sources, to new onshore schemes from 1 April 2016, a year earlier than previously announced.  This means that any schemes that are not already in receipt of planning permission and a grid connection offer cannot be built in time to meet the funding deadline.

The wind industry is close to cost parity, meaning that some developments could even now be delivered in the absence of government subsidy.  Later on the 18 June, however, Communities Secretary Greg Clark announced new considerations to be applied to proposed wind energy developments so that local people have the “final say” on wind farm applications.  The new policy allows planning authorities to grant permission for wind turbines only if the application site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan, and if the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the scheme has the community’s support.  The policy was incorporated into National Planning Policy Guidance on 18 June, so taking immediate effect.

In essence, this almost certainly closes the window that might have allowed new planning permissions to be granted in time to meet the ROC deadline. As the national Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) required Local plans only to ‘consider’ identifying areas for wind energy, very few Local Plans identify even areas of search, let alone allocate sites.  Those that do are, paradoxically, not in England so the new guidance is not relevant.  The second part of the policy, that any application for wind turbines must have community support, sets a particular challenge to both developers and planning authorities to define the relevant ‘community, and assess the weight of local views for or against schemes (the Government’s Chief Planner made clear on 22 June that the Government will not prescribe how local planning authorities should reach this judgement).

Despite a “grace period” allowed for projects already in the pipeline, the combined effect of the new DECC and CLG policies is that some 250 projects, together capable of generating seven gigawatts of capacity will not now be developed.

Baffling

Set against a background of not just 2020 Climate Change targets (to which the UK is legally bound), but also the 2030 and 2050 targets that will require significantly increased technological effort and political will to avoid catastrophic effects on some of the most vulnerable people in the world, it is crucial that the energy market has confidence in the Government’s will to drive forward low carbon development.  Given the long lead time to take energy generating and infrastructure projects through planning, investors and developers are already working towards post 2020 projects.  The twin policy announcements made on 18 June may satisfy back bench political concerns, but they meanwhile strip investor confidence from the UK renewables development sector which was, until recently, a global leader. As such, they seriously compromise the UK’s capacity to maintain, let alone move towards the dual goal of a low carbon economy and increased energy security.

To add to the loss in investor confidence, the market can expect removal of wind turbine from any further Contract for Difference rounds, again in line with manifesto commitments, and the potential removal of support for small scale wind through the imminent review of the Feed in Tariff. Whilst the sub 5MW schemes that this will affect do not benefit from the economies of scale met by large wind, but they do play an important role in supporting the rural economy through on-farm and local community initiatives.

The decision to stop the currently most effective form of renewable energy generation from use is particularly baffling if it is been made on the basis that a minority of the population objects to the visual impact of wind turbines.  On shore wind turbines may not, in the end, form part of the mix for a post 2030 economy moving towards a carbon free energy system.  Technologies such as wave and tidal power, solar and other still in research and development phases may prove more effective and acceptable.  For now, however, wind turbines are temporary structures which offer an opportunity to maintain momentum in reducing carbon from energy generation whilst more effective technologies are brought on stream.

A new planning conundrum

The new planning policy raises significant questions across wider development sectors than the wind turbines at which it is directed. Although the Energy Secretary’s response to questions in the House on 23 June, that wind turbine planning decisions could no longer be appealed, was subsequently corrected by CLG (DCLG 24 June), it clearly demonstrated lack of communication between Ministers which leaves important planning considerations unresolved.

Not least of these is the question of how planning can justify a decision to grant or refuse permission to develop a wind turbine on the weight of public support or opposition, when the same test is not applied to equally contentious sectors such as housing, commercial or highways development.  The presumption in favour of sustainable development, which the NPPF states should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking, is likely to be severely tested.

Wider implications

Meanwhile, while on shore wind energy is unlikely to form part of the UK’s strategy to meet post 2020 targets for cutting emissions, a landmark ruling in The Hague could cause ripples of concern to likeminded administrations. The Dutch Court’s recent decision to that its government must cut emissions by at least 25% within five years, rather than the 14-17% that had been planned, is the first time that a court has found a nation state to have an independent legal climate liability obligation towards its citizens. The court based its decision, not least, on the fact that the threat posed by global warming was severe and acknowledged by the Dutch government in international pacts.

This begs the question as to whether the UK government could face a similar legal action if less mature renewable technologies be inadequate to make up the 2020 shortfall in carbon reductions left by removal of on shore wind from the generation mix.  In the year of the defining Paris climate summit, the Government’s kerb on shore wind energy could lead to failure to both meet its own targets and deliver obligation to its citizens.

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