No end in sight to onshore wind battles

The Conservative Party says it will ban new onshore wind projects from receiving subsidies if it wins the next election. But it may struggle to convince the European Commission the plan is legal

Onshore wind will be an election issue (photograph: Sharon Kingston/Dreamstime.com)The Conservative Party’s plan to end support for new onshore wind projects if it wins the next election could be challenged under EU state aid rules, according to Maria Kleis, a lawyer specialising in energy issues at NGO ClientEarth. 

Kleis said the Tories would have to argue their case to the European Commission that such a policy was not discriminatory.

This would involve arguing that onshore wind projects were impeding diversification of the UK’s energy mix and so needed limiting. But there is no guarantee the commission would accept that argument, she said. Industry would also be able to challenge it.

Energy minister Michael Fallon announced the Tory plan on 24 April – the party’s latest attempt to win electoral support by bashing onshore wind.

“Renewable energy has a key role to play in our future energy supply,” he said in a media briefing. “But we now have enough bill-payer funded onshore wind in the pipeline to meet our 2020 renewable energy commitments and there’s no requirement for any more.”

Projects that had obtained planning permission by the election would still be eligible for subsidies under either the Renewables Obligation or the forthcoming contracts for difference scheme, he said. But no new projects would gain support.

Fallon’s argument that the UK has enough onshore wind to meet its 2020 EU renewable energy targets does have merit – assuming all other renewables deliver as expected (ENDS Report 430, p15).

The UK needs 11-13 gigawatts of onshore wind in 2020, says DECC’s renewable energy roadmap (endsreport.com/41512). There is already 8.9GW operational or under construction, while 4.3GW more has planning consent. If all of that were built, the UK would have 13.2GW of onshore wind in 2020 – above DECC’s plan.

However, Fallon’s briefing did not explain how a ban could work given any changes to subsidy schemes need EU approval. James Wild, Fallon’s special adviser, told ENDS the policy was compatible with EU state aid guidelines for renewable energy issued in April (see p16).

The EU wants greater competition between renewables and a phasing out of support for mature technologies, he said. “Onshore wind is a mature technology.” 

But Kleis said this does not tally with the guidelines, which only allow members to exclude technologies from bidding for subsidies under certain circumstances. “The bidding process can be limited to specific technologies where a process open to all generators would lead to a suboptimal result,” the guidelines read. This includes if a technology would harm “the longer-term potential of [other] new and innovative technologies” or if it would damage “the need to achieve diversification [of the energy mix]”. Technologies can also be excluded if they would cause grid instability.

“The UK would have to argue its decision is compliant with one of those exemptions,” she said. “So the commission may agree or it may not.”

In reality, the Tories would have to argue onshore wind was preventing diversification of the UK’s energy mix. It would be unable to argue onshore wind is preventing development of other technologies because DECC has already said mature renewables will not compete against immature ones for subsidies (endsreport.com/42445).

The Tories could still impede development of onshore wind projects even if the commission scuppered its plan.

Fallon also said in April the Tories would amend planning policy if they win the next election “to give even greater protection to locally valued landscape, heritage and other concerns”

This could make it extremely difficult for onshore wind projects to get planning permission due to their visual impacts.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is already trying his best to ensure few projects get consent by calling in wind farm planning appeals.

Since June 2013, he has called in 35 cases, refusing permission for seven and approving one. In April he announced he would continue calling in schemes until the 2015 election.