Top 5 ways the UK government can support onshore wind and meet net-zero emissions by 2050

Michael Phillips, Contributor

In early June, the UK enshrined into law a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so. Meeting this target will require substantial reliance on renewable energy from solar, tidal, hydro, and wind sources, both onshore and offshore. 

When I started working in renewable energy project development in 2001, pillars had been raised to support the UK’s decarbonisation agenda. Since 2010, however, many of those pillars, including political, policy and regulatory support, have been rapidly dismantled. Renewable onshore generation, principally wind, solar and hydro power, was severely curtailed by this policy about-turn, harming investor confidence in the UK market and spreading a particularly unhelpful message in a time of increasing global heating.

The current government must take five clear steps to reverse this trend and encourage renewables, particularly onshore wind: support the route to market, boost repowering and life extension opportunities, improve the planning environment, update the grid, and drive positive messages on renewables to the public. 

Without committing to these steps, failing UK government support will make it near-impossible to meet the country’s energy commitments – let alone address the climate crisis.

1. Uphold a supportive route to market for onshore renewables

Currently, government policy excludes onshore wind, solar and hydro from auctions for new power generation through Contracts for Difference (CfD). CfD is a key element of the Electricity Market Reform, a bidding system for new power generation to enter the UK’s energy market. Without the ability to enter auctions, and with no current subsidised support for renewables, new clean energy generation struggles to find a viable route to market. 

If a route to market for onshore wind was supported by financial incentives and opportunities, almost 800 projects that have achieved planning consent but do not have financial backing could be built. Together, these schemes would generate around 12 terawatt-hours of energy a year, equivalent to two thirds of the capacity of the recently dropped Hitachi nuclear project on Anglesey, Wales.

As it stands, the route to market remains very challenging for the onshore developer network. At Dulas, we are seeing some tentative private investment in onshore schemes, however it is of major concern that neither finance nor policy is sufficiently supportive to roll out the volume of renewable energy required to meet our carbon reduction requirements, the country’s renewable energy commitments or our broader energy needs.

2. Encourage the repowering of existing wind farms and life extensions

A key element in sustaining and increasing onshore wind – especially considering such unproductive conditions for new onshore development – is the process of repowering. Repowering is the replacement of wind turbines reaching the end of their operational life after 20-25 years. This is achieved by replacing older wind turbines with modern, high-capacity and highly-efficient technology, a process that can often triple the installed capacity of repowered schemes.

A recent report from RenewableUK found that over eight gigawatts of existing onshore wind capacity is set to be retired in the next ten years. This amounts to almost a fifth of the UK’s renewable energy output. These first-generation wind farms were the industry’s pioneer projects, often located in areas with the best wind resource. Repowering these turbines with modern technology could lead to a significant increase in generating capacity, but failing government policy around both planning and financing for repowering onshore wind will likely see this capacity lost.

3. Create a positive planning environment for new and older wind projects

To go ahead, a new or repowered windfarm project must meet a number of stringent requirements. This includes being located within specially allocated areas in local and national plans and, as is the case in England, the project must demonstrate full community support.

In England, government policy has enabled an environment where local councils are able to refuse the repowering of existing wind farms despite positive recommendations from planners. Whilst it’s right that broad support from councils and their constituents is essential in planning for new projects and extending existing ones, there will always be a minority of people forcefully opposed to the existence of renewable energy in the local landscape. As it stands in England, policy hands decision-making to the few opposed to change. 

Planning policy is much more favourable for repowering and onshore wind in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Wales in particular is working to tackle the impact of the few by shifting the weight of decision-making for wind farms of 10-megawatts or more to ministers and away from local councils, but England remains at standstill in its support for onshore wind at the level of government. The government must create a more positive planning environment and support a stronger justification for renewables if there is to be real progress in decarbonizing energy and transport.

4. Invest in updating the grid

The UK grid is holding back the development of renewable energy schemes. Our current, historical grid was designed to manage a power supply drawn from large-scale centralised generators (such as coal and nuclear), connecting a consistent energy supply to the transmission and distribution network. 

In contrast, renewable energy requires multiple generating sites across multiple locations, each of which need to be grid serviced. Currently, connection opportunities for new renewables infrastructure are extremely limited, and a study of grid availability is a determining – and limiting – factor in selecting the turbine technology and size of scheme that can be proposed, if at all. 

The National Infrastructure Commission has called on the UK government to “show ambition” and invest in an electricity system powered mainly by renewables. To do this, we must invest in upgrading and expanding our historic grid network to open the doors to more renewable energy schemes – both farm-scale and private. 

5. Drive positive messages about renewables to the public

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s recent public attitude survey highlighted that 79% of people support onshore wind. However, as discussed above, the planning environment in England gives the power of refusal to the 21% not in favour. 

Alongside a fundamental change in policy and planning support, the government needs to broadcast strong, positive messages to the public around renewable energy – and in particular, onshore wind – in order to bring that last 21% around. 

Much of the public understands that in order to tackle climate change we need to make changes to how we source our energy. What isn’t communicated enough is that this will require making temporary changes to our landscape by building renewable energy infrastructure. It’s also key that consumers know that onshore wind is in their personal interest – the downward force wind energy has on power prices paid by the consumer is also worth communicating

Positive, unambiguous, and explanatory messages like these must be shared and taken onboard by the public as part of the journey towards what I hope will be a decarbonisation agenda that sees the value of onshore renewables – in particular, the value in technology like onshore wind which can be deployed in substantial volumes to help fulfil the new decarbonisation legislation. 

Michael Phillips is Principal Consultant at Dulas, a leading renewable energy provider and consultancy based in Machynlleth, Wales.