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What lessons can the UK learn from abroad about onshore wind?


Tom Sasse

Tom Sasse

4 min read

With the government considering ending the ban on onshore wind in England, Tom Sasse analyses what the UK should learn from abroad

Last April, Keele University in Staffordshire opened a new “low-carbon energy generation park”, featuring two 50-metre wind turbines, 12,500 solar panels and a “state of the art” battery system. Ribbon-cutting was apposite. The park will supply around half of the campus’s electricity and become a “living laboratory” for energy research. And the turbines were the only erected anywhere in England in the last three years. 

Unlike on land, the UK is a leader in wind power at sea. But many believe it focussed too little on capturing the benefits for British businesses and workers

Where Keele succeeded others have failed because of an effective ban on onshore wind, the cheapest source of power in England since 2015. Introduced as part of David Cameron’s drive to “cut the green crap”, the rules required turbines to have unanimous backing from the local community (an almost impossibly high bar, as anyone familiar with the English planning system knows).

The devolved administrations have remained somewhat friendlier; in Scotland six wind farms were completed last year. One in South Lanarkshire will supply electricity to over 50,000 homes. But in England, companies more or less stopped seeking permits. This was despite onshore wind, along with solar, being not only very cheap but popular in every part of the country, including where turbines were installed.

Other countries have not stopped building. “In the last three years the United States has installed enough onshore wind to power 22 million homes,” says Sam Richards, a former energy adviser to Boris Johnson who now heads Britain Remade, which campaigns for pro-growth policies. “In France it’s about two million… in Germany it’s about 2.5 million.”

Those leading the charge offer three lessons. The first is securing enough land for development. “A problem in the United Kingdom is the lack of permitting staff in local authorities,” says Elena Pravettoni, an analyst at the Energy Transitions Commission, a global coalition of industry leaders. Oversight of projects smaller than 50 megawatt (MW) in annual output sits with local authorities, not the planning inspectorate. But most councils have proved incapable of designating land for development (a problem not confined to energy). 

Texas has taken a different approach. It has created dedicated renewable energy zones, concentrated in the arid and windy west of the state, to help identify land and enable fast permitting of projects. In Germany, the federal government decided that the Lander must allocate two per cent of land to be prioritised for renewables. 

Second is securing community buy-in. Unanimous support may be unrealistic (save perhaps for turbines located between a science university and the M6). But ensuring communities have their concerns heard and stand to benefit is critical. Most of Denmark’s wind farms are community-owned, while in Germany some developers pay communities a share of their annual profits roughly equivalent of 2,000 euros per hectare. 

Richards says the government need not be prescriptive but should encourage developers to find out what local people care about. Britain Remade has proposed a “community safeguard” whereby development could be stopped if a fifth of the local community opposed it (see Sam Dumitriu’s piece in this issue for more). 

A third lesson is securing green jobs and investment. Unlike on land, the UK is a leader in wind power at sea. But many believe it focussed too little on capturing the benefits for British businesses and workers. In his party conference speech last year Keir Starmer drew attention to Pen Y Cymoedd, the largest onshore wind farm in Wales: “Who owns it? Sweden!” Ministers have started to recognise this. The latest government auctions require bids to have 60 per cent UK content. An enormous monopile factory is being constructed in Teesside’s freeport. 

But with the US and the European Union bringing forward huge incentives to attract investment, there is still a danger of the UK “falling behind in the global race”, as Chris Skidmore put it in his net zero review. The government will have to act quickly to catch up. 

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