COP26: huge decline in renewable wind farm planning applications - Government accused of ‘total sabotage’ of sector

Charities warn the UK will not meet its net zero climate target by 2050 if the onshore wind sector is not rapidly developed.

The UK Government has been accused of “almost total sabotage” of the onshore wind farm industry due to a lack of investment, NationalWorld can exclusively reveal.

The number of planning applications for onshore wind farms in the UK has collapsed in the last five years, after it was announced subsidies for new sites would be scrapped in 2016, our analysis of government data shows.

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This has left families more vulnerable to recent gas price rises that are set to hit household and business budgets this winter, according to Greenpeace.

As the Government prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow later this week, charities warn the UK will not meet its net zero climate target by 2050 if there is not rapid development of the onshore wind industry.

How many wind farms are there in the UK?

Analysis of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Renewable Planning Database shows applications for onshore wind energy sites plummeted after 2015 when the Government announced the Renewables Obligation scheme would close to new onshore wind farms from 1 April 2016.

The scheme, which ran from 2002 to 2017, was the main support for large scale renewable electricity projects across the UK, and was funded by levies added to household fuel bills.

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Small onshore wind turbines (up to 5MW) also received Government support under the Feed in Tariff (FIT) scheme until it was closed to new projects in 2019.

Over the last 30 years there have been 2,100 applications for onshore wind farms, with a gradual increase as renewables became poised to replace fossil fuel energy.

This excludes 116 projects where the date the application was submitted was not recorded, all of which were either refused, granted, withdrawn or became operational prior to 2015.

There are currently over 6,850 operational wind turbines across 744 sites in the UK.

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The last five years have seen planning applications drop significantly. In 2015 there were 126 planning applications submitted. This dropped to 32 in 2016 and 33 in 2017.

Applications were already falling prior to 2016 but an announcement that new onshore wind sites would be excluded from the remainder of the scheme in 2015 saw applications plummet.

There have been 34 applications submitted so far in 2021 but this only includes the first six months, so it is likely that the number will rise.

The number of new onshore wind farms getting up and running has also fallen off a cliff – 91 sites became operational at the peak in 2013 but this dropped to 24 in 2018, 12 in 2019 and two in 2020. In the first six months of 2021, six became operational.

A total of 630 onshore wind farm sites have been refused planning permission since 1991 – 229 more were refused initially then later granted.

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With an average of seven turbines per farm, this means the UK effectively lost out on the power of more than 4,370 wind turbines.

Onshore wind farms have been refused planning permission the greatest number of times in Scotland, which has had 272 applications permanently turned down since 1991. This is the effective loss of 2,641 turbines.

What do campaigners say?

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, told NationalWorld that public opinion on onshore wind energy sites is “enormously” positive and that rapid development is needed.

He said: “The most shocking thing about the Government’s almost total sabotage of our cheapest electricity source, the onshore wind industry, was their insistence that they were blocking wind farms because the public opposed them.”

But Dr Parr said there was “three times the public support” for wind farms than for the UK’s shale gas industry.

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He added: “Tragically, if some of this onshore wind had been built, the UK would have been less vulnerable to the gas prices set to make families’ lives difficult this winter.

“[The] Government has correctly said that an important way through the gas price crisis is through rapid development of a home grown renewables industry, which needs to include onshore wind.

“They need to get on with it, and not make the same mistake twice.”

Environmental charity, Friends of the Earth, added that investment was essential to meet climate pledges.

Rebecca Murray, senior planner at Friends of the Earth, said: “To reach our collective cleaner future the Government must invest in onshore wind and reconsider all policy barriers preventing this necessary transformational change.

“The facilitation and uptake of renewable energy schemes is crucial in meeting the government’s climate duties and net zero by 2050 targets.”

What support will be available for new wind farms?

The Government said it has not set a deployment target for onshore wind or solar.

A spokesperson said: “Onshore wind, alongside other renewables, will have an important role to play in helping us to decarbonise the UK’s whole electricity system by 2035. Latest figures indicate we now have over 14GW of onshore wind capacity installed in the UK, enough to power over 10 million UK homes.

“We have already announced that onshore wind projects will be able to compete in the next Contracts for Difference (CfD) allocation round, which will aim to deliver up to double the renewable capacity of the last round.”

The Government said the CfD scheme is to incentivise large scale renewable generation. It announced in March last year that onshore wind (and solar) projects would be eligible for the scheme which  is planned to open to applications on 13 December 2021.

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