Wind farm rows reflect deep split on energy policy

Fri, Nov 30, 2012, 00:00

LONDON LETTER:Lib Dems and Tories increasingly polarised on power generation reform

For 10 years, many of the locals in Orby in Lincolnshire have opposed plans to erect nine wind turbines on land owned by Mark Caudwell at Marsh Lane.

Last month, some of them crowded into Hogsthorpe village hall to hear Caudwell’s appeal to East Lindsey district council’s planning inspectorate against the council’s refusal to grant permission.

“If nine wind turbines are granted, it won’t be long until there are 30. Why should one man’s gain be several people’s losses,” argued neighbouring farmer Peter Smithson.

Ten wind farms are in operation today in Lincolnshire, with 93 turbines erected and three more on the way. Thirteen more projects are planned, with 94 turbines.

Voicing the view of many of his constituents, Conservative MP for Sleaford Stephen Phillips complained this week that Lincolnshire’s flat, if windy, landscape was unsuitable for wind farms.

People, he said, were “properly concerned that even a small number of turbines have an overwhelming, disproportionate and oppressive visual impact”.

Last year, wind farms provided up to 9,000 gigawatt hours of electricity – a quarter of the total generated from renewables that year and enough to power nearly 2.5 million homes.

However, each project is a planning battle. Today, onshore wind farms that will generate up to 11 gigawatts of electricity are in construction, or have planning permission.

Figures from the London School of Economics show planners’ attitudes vary in the UK. Eight in 10 of those put forward in Northern Ireland, for instance, get the go-ahead. Scotland – deemed friendliest by the renewable industry – approves 60 per cent , while in England, where feelings are strongest, approval rates are lower again, at 54 per cent.

However, the pace is accelerating. The number of planning permits issued in the year to June is up by 50 per cent on the previous year.

The rise is partly put down to the move to leave decisions about smaller wind farms – generating less than 50 meg– awatts – to district councils.

Tempers, however, are fraying. Last month, energy minister John Hayes – a Lincolnshire MP – ruled out further construction. “Job done,” he declared.

His stand provoked a furious row with the secretary of state for energy, Lib Dem MP Ed Davey, leading to a situation where the two must sign off together on projects.

Last week, Davey agreed a pact with chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne that will see energy users paying a near £8 billion (€9.9 billion) subsidy for nuclear and renewables by 2020.

Rejecting charges led by the Daily Telegraph – no fan of turbines in England’s green and pleasant land – that the subsidy would add £178 a year to electricity bills, Davey’s officials estimated the impact at £68 a year in bills in 2030.

Faced with a mounting campaign against wind farms, the Renewable Energy Association trade body said the impact of green energy on bills had been “wildly overstated”, claiming it had cost an extra £4 in the last two years.

The fruits of the Davey/ Osborne deal reached the House of Commons yesterday, though it is not yet clear if it will give the green light to two new nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point in Somerset – capacity that is badly needed as some of the UK coal-fired stations near the end of their lives.

EDF Energy, Hinkley Point’s owner, was expected to have taken a final decision about its plans in Somerset – the first new nuclear stations in the UK for 25 years – by the end of the year, but that timetable has slipped.

Under the legislation, investors in nuclear power stations and renewables will be compensated if prices fall below a “strike price” yet to be agreed with government. If prices rise above that figure then generators will pay the difference back to consumers.

The “strike price” is a matter of bitter division, with some anti-nuclear lobbies arguing it could be three times the current wholesale price for electricity, though this figure is rejected as ridiculous by EDF.

Osborne wants more gas stations: quick to build, they can be brought online in minutes and emit less CO2, though environmentalists argue such measures deny the reality of climate change and the need to reform energy production to cope with it.

However, Osborne has become progressively more jaundiced against renewables, ruling out a Liberal Democrat demand for a complete greening of energy production by 2030.

For the chancellor, the issue is primarily a matter of economics, since he argues little is achieved by cutting the UK’s CO2 emissions simply by losing industry that needs power to elsewhere.

Back in Orby, locals will have to wait until the New Year to see if Caudwell’s third attempt to build his wind farm succeeds. More evidence about noise is required, says the planning inspector.

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