Scrapping onshore wind farms: as economically irresponsible as it is environmentally reprehensible

The Conservatives have embarked on an all-out assault on the cheapest form of renewable energy there is, writes Oliver Hayes.

The Conservatives have embarked on an all-out assault on the cheapest form of renewable energy there is, writes Oliver Hayes

“I’m as green as the next man, but I’m a cheap green,” declared energy minister Michael Fallon in October last year.

Yesterday, barely six months on, he was the standard-bearer for the Conservative party’s all-out assault on the cheapest form of renewable energy there is.

A Conservative government in 2015, Fallon announced, would pull the plug on all support for new on-shore wind farms, claiming we have “enough” already built or planned, that there’s “no requirement for any more” and lamenting that “we’re stuck with the ones that we’ve already got”.

Another Conservative ‘source’ went further, claiming the pledge would “effectively curtail further large-scale onshore wind developments”.

We’re pretty clear at Friends of the Earth – we want renewables to operate without subsidy as soon as possible. But getting to that point requires steady, predictable reductions in support that reflect falling costs and a growing, increasingly robust industry.

We’re heading in the right direction – onshore wind is already cheaper than nuclear and, like solar power, is fast snapping at the heels of gas. Ironically, we may have already got there were it not so laborious getting schemes approved.

But prematurely wiping out subsidies would kill the industry, leaving the gap in our decarbonisation efforts to be filled by other, more expensive technologies.

Of course it’s electoral politics, not economics, which lies at the heart of this announcement. With the modernisers in the Conservative party increasingly marginalised, Cameron, Osborne and their spinner-in-chief Lynton Crosby reckon there are more votes to be gained in key marginal seats by giving sweeteners to the vocal minority opposed to wind than offering continuity to those who bought into the pre-2010 “vote blue, go green” mantra (although Lord Ashcroft, their out of favour billionaire funder and polling guru, would disagree).

Not that they’ll admit it, mind. Conservative aides have spent the day trying to spin this announcement as a victory for people power, claiming without any shred of evidence that onshore wind is unpopular.

It’s bunk, and they know it.

The government’s own public attitudes survey from 4 February revealed that when asked whether “generally speaking, do you support or oppose on-shore wind”, fully two thirds said support, while only one in ten opposed.

Contrast that with fracking. The same survey revealed only 27 per cent support, yet this industry – which hasn’t produced a single drop of shale gas in the UK for nearly three years, during which time wind farms have been powering up to 15 per cent of total UK electricity consumption – receives unwavering, unquestioning support from every corner of government.

Yesterday was no exception. Fallon hopped seamlessly from whacking wind to fluffing fracking, releasing a report proclaiming the future jobs benefits of shale extraction. It’s a bizarre case of ‘jam tomorrow’, especially when wind and other green industries are already employing one million people, and major new projects – including in the all-important supply chain – are announced with increasing regularity.

With coalition parties increasingly focussed on differentiation ahead of next year’s general election, a sense of cognitive dissonance within government might seem tiresomely predictable. It’s certainly the case that ongoing coalition rows on green issues are gaining ever more airtime, probably because of their obvious convenience for both parties.

But the Liberal Democrats should not rest easy with Conservatives so readily painted as pantomime villains on the environment. It was Lib Dems, let’s not forget, who voted overwhelmingly against their party policy of a power sector decarbonisation target in last year’s Energy Bill (now Act) in the face of unprecedented business and investor support for the measure, a fact that will not be lost among their traditionally deep green grass roots.

Despite the ministerial bickering, the hopeless policy inconsistency and crumbling investor certainty, we should remember that all three main UK political parties remain at least superficially committed to curbing emissions in line with our legally binding Climate Change Act requirements (a damn good thing, given the unsurprising but no less terrifying recent climate reports from the UN’s experts.)

For the sake of keeping happy those whom his party’s spin doctors have decided are ideologically opposed to wind farms, however, Michael Fallon has simply confirmed that a new Conservative government would make us all pay more to meet those climate requirements.

Oliver Hayes is a political campaigner at Friends of the Earth

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.