Finding a future for wind power

As the political storm over the UK government's decision to end subsidies for onshore wind power rumbles on, we take a look at wind power developments in Scotland.

Renewables now generate almost half of Scotland's energy with wind power at record levels, according to the latest data. Wind turbines produced 4,452 gigawatt-hours of electricity in the first three months of this year, up 4.3% on the previous most productive quarter. This is enough to power Scotland’s 960,000 households for a year. Renewable sources provided 49.8% of electricity used in Scotland in 2014, with installed capacity rising by 9%, or 7,383 megawatts.

The cost of wind power has come under attack from economist Tony Mackay, who has claimed that the subsidies paid to onshore wind farms in Scotland are “unnecessarily high” and have led to “supernormal” profits for businesses and landowners. He argues that the subsidies received by wind farms has on average been, “between 2.5 and 3 times what was required to expand wind farm capacity to meet Scottish Government [emissions] targets”.

The explanation for these profits are that while other countries subsidise capital investment, in the UK operating costs and revenue are subsidised. As a consequence electricity bills in Scotland are now around 10% higher than they would be without subsidies. Even with the replacement of the overly generous Renewables Obligations (RO) subsidy scheme with the more limited and competitive Contracts for Difference (CfD) subsidies, the UK will still be “stuck with the current shambles of subsidies for wind energy projects,”. Scottish Renewables responded that subsidies add around 82 pence a week (or 7%) to the average Scottish bill.

Andrew Smith argues that wind power in the UK is more expensive than it should be because of regulatory and planning uncertainty. That adds to developers costs and means that much of the supply chain is outwith the UK. Despite this the latest round of CfD bids shows that it costs about the same as solar.

He argues that government policy could give windfarm developers much greater long-term assurances of a supportive and consistent policy environment, thus lowering their risks and hence lowering costs. This will improve transparency, and reduce the cost of onshore wind further. It would give certainty to investors through decisiveness and leadership, and it would show that the government is taking a pragmatic and cost-effective approach to tackling climate change.

Frederick Dahlmann from Warwick University argues that the future for wind power is locally based wind farm cooperatives using crowd funding. He points to the experience of Denmark and Germany where local authorities are much more engaged in the process. He illustrates his point with a proposal by Yorkshire-based Edgehill, which seeks to raise £2.5m from investors chipping in as little as £50 to build ten turbines in ten different rural locations. With their risks and benefits shared between large numbers of individual investors, these projects are used to keeping locals happy, dealing with NIMBYs, and bringing them on as investors.

A new report by the climate change body ClimateXChange claims that developers sometimes under-assess the impact of wind farm noise and appearance on residents living nearby. The study looked at how the visual, shadow flicker and noise impacts predicted by developers at the planning stage compared to reality. It concluded that in some cases what was set out in planning applications did not match the actual impact. It also found that efforts to engage with the public had not always adequately prepared residents for the visual, shadow flicker and noise impacts of a development.

There might have been wider public support against the UK government's decision to end subsidy early if wind power had delivered the hoped for wider benefits. As Brian Wilson puts it:

“I find it bitterly disappointing that so little of the manufacturing associated with wind farms in Scotland has been carried out here. That is a major failure on the part of the Scottish Government and does no credit to the biggest developers, Scottish Power and SSE, who have had the benefits of major planning consents and vast subsidies through the Renewables Obligation but failed to reciprocate by creating an industry worthy of the name.”

Brian also suggests some practical measures to mitigate the impact of the decision. Specifically support for community based schemes and the islands. As I previously argued, the UK government decision was right in principle, but wrong in terms of timing. There should be room to rescue a viable future for wind power as part of a more balanced energy policy.



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