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Government must act on public support for renewables

The government must take action on the public support of renewables, explains Michael Phillips.

People are increasingly concerned about climate change, and, as the recent public attitude survey from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows, support for renewable energy is at 84 per cent. But the regulatory and policy vacuum around onshore renewables means that project deployment is at its slowest for a decade.

Onshore renewables remain excluded from auctions for new power generation contracts, subsidy support has been withdrawn, and local councils can refuse both new and the repowering of onshore projects, despite nods from planning officers.

The government must acknowledge public opinion and increase policy and planning support to deliver the renewables capacity that will keep the UK on a meaningful carbon reduction trajectory.

Life extension and repowering of existing renewable energy projects is critical to support the country’s energy ambitions. More than 60 onshore wind farms will pass the 20-year operations mark within the next five years, and repowering could increase existing capacity threefold with new, more efficient technology. 

“The disconnect between supportive planning offices and the councils that have the final say is holding onshore renewables hostage”

But repowering an existing renewable energy project is not as simple as returning to the original, approved application. The absence of subsidy support has made it necessary for developers to increase scale and capacity to harness more power – but rises in efficiency and capacity are proportional to increases in turbine size and changes in farm layout.

For planners, these changes can usually be mitigated by supplementary environmental assessments, yet the disconnect between supportive planning offices and the councils that have the final say is holding onshore renewables hostage.

Developer appetite for repowering remains, but there is much uncertainty over the response of local councils to applications. Their support is essential in planning for new projects and extending existing ones.

Wales is tackling this by shifting the weight of decision-making for wind farms of 10 megawatts or more from councils to ministers. But England remains at a standstill in its support for onshore wind. To address this, planning authorities must add greater weight to the merits of low carbon proposals and work with applicants to make the effects of renewable energy developments acceptable, as advised under section 154b of the NPPF.

Although the country has a strong appetite for onshore renewable energy, the current lack of policy support from the UK government means that the prospects for addressing climate change are under threat.

Michael Phillips is principal planning consultant for Dulas


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