The Tories vs green business

David Cameron's plans for wind farms show he is not committed to his climate targets - and it's turning green business against him


If the Conservatives win another term in May, they will end subsidies for onshore wind farms. According to David Cameron, the British public are ‘frankly fed up’ with the onshore wind industry, and he has pledged that under another Conservative government onshore wind turbines would provide no more than 10 per cent of the UK’s energy.

In this pledge, the prime minister has not only shown that his green promises were empty – remember ”vote blue, go green”? – but is ignoring both expert and public opinion.

This week Guy Hands, the founder of investment firm Terra Firma, launched a scathing attack in the Financial Times(£) on Cameron’s renewables policy. He said the Tories had failed to recognise the falling costs of the industry, and accused them of harbouring an ’emotional hatred’ for wind farms. He is the latest business leader to express concern that the Tories could scare off investment at the very moment when costs are falling.

Meanwhile Dale Vince, the founder of green energy supplier Ecotricity, has given an interview explaining his decision to support the Labour party. He says that this election poses an ‘existential threat’ to his industry and to the country:

“Since the last election, (Cameron) has gone from hugging huskies to describing it all as ‘green crap’.”

According to Mr Vince, Ecotricity believe Cameron would extend his cap on onshore wind to solar power if he stays in government – he plans to close the current subsidy scheme for large solar farms. Indeed, it is Mr Vince’s belief that all forms of renewable energy are under threat from the Tories.

But why, when renewable energy is only just getting to where it wants to be?

RenewableUK, the UK’s leading non-profit renewable energy trade association, says that by 2020, onshore wind will be the cheapest form of new electricity generation. In a report released last week they found that:

“Impressive levels of generation capacity are matched by equally impressive financial benefits to the UK economy, with £1.6 billion of investment – £729 million of which was spent in the UK – delivered from projects that were commissioned in 2013/14 alone.”

RenewableUK also found that onshore wind farms will deliver £2.55 million of annual community benefits to local people, as well as the almost £6 million they have already contributed to local councils through business rate payments – equivalent to a lifetime value of £149 million. Furthermore, their taskforce said that if their recommendations were followed, up to £21 per megawatt hour could be cut from today’s wind costs.

They said:

“The next government could choose to work with our industry so that in the next five years, the cost of decarbonisation falls more quickly and UK consumers benefit.”

But David Cameron won’t work with them. He insists that the public have had enough of wind farms, despite the government’s own polling showing that 67 per cent of the public support them.

In their report, RenewableUK acknowleges that there has been ‘a clear and consistent drop in planning approval rates over time’. Analysis by the Fabian Society showed that in 2014, 57 per cent of wind farm applications were rejected, up from from 37 per cent in 2013 and 21 per cent in 2008.

Part of the problem here is with the way these projects are implemented, and too often people feel they are having developments foisted upon them without their say. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has intervened in 50 planning applications since June 2013, rather than allowing local authorities and planning inspectors to make the decisions based on, and adapted to, the needs of the community.

Dale Vince describes how one of the great advantages of renewable energy is that it is decentralised, working on a small scale. Not only does this limit the scale of possible errors, it should ideally allow for more democratic design.

Success stories for wind farms have involved the local community at every level; for example, at the 9.2 MW project at Delabole in Cornwall, local residents were shown several options for the size and number of turbines, and the provider Good Energy adapted its plans according to their preference. Good Energy now offers local residents discount energy bills to make sure they feel the benefits of hosting the farm.

Campaigners have urged Mr Pickles to cease his interventions and allow local authorities to retain control of the planning process –  especially as he is clearly hostile to wind power and refuses the majority of applications. (As of September 2014, he had refused 17 out of 19 processed applications; five of the 17 had previously been approved by the Planning Inspectorate.)

The renewable industry has always been clear about the fact that the ultimate aim is to operate without government subsidies, but these need to be withdrawn in a way that is steady and predictable. Prematurely cutting off the wind industry, as David Cameron wants to do, would mean that, in order to reach the renewables targets that he has himself committed to, there would be a long and expensive battle to get support for an alternative energy source off the ground.

Onshore wind farms are working. They are providing clean, sustainable energy which is getting steadily cheaper. Withdrawing support from them at this stage would undermine all this success, and plans to do so show David Cameron’s contempt for both the environment and the public purse.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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