As more than 100 MPs have written to David Cameron to protest about subsidies paid to wind farm industry, we explain why wind energy has become so controversial.
What is current government policy on wind farms?
The Coalition government – just like the Labour government before it – is convinced wind farms are the future. The UK is one of the windiest places in western Europe and that is a resource the government is determined to exploit.
Onshore and offshore turbines are actively encouraged in order to help meet strict carbon emissions targets. By 2020, 40 per cent of all UK electricity should come from ‘low carbon’ sources, of which wind energy will be a major contributor.
The Labour government had pledged to cut carbon emissions by a third between 1990 and 2020 and the coalition is planning to go further still with cuts of 60 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050.
The government also believes wind energy should provide a degree of energy security, immune to price rises and foreign supply constraints.
What is effect of that policy?
The upshot of the policy has been a dramatic rush for wind. The Government has offered generous incentives – in the form of consumer subsidies – to encourage energy companies to build turbines, both on and offshore.
Those subsidies are added to consumer electricity bills. In other words, the money does not come out of central Government funds but is included on household bills. The additional sums are likely to rise as more and more wind farms come on stream.
The electricity companies and landowners, who rent out their land for turbines, can earn millions of pounds from the policy.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat who resigned last week as energy secretary, was particularly keen on turbines, describing their opponents as “curmudgeons and fault finders”. Critics claim a number of leading civil servants at the Department for Energy and Climate Change are “zealots” for wind power.
How much does the policy cost?
The subsidies, which come in the form of Renewable Obligations Certificate (ROC) payments, come on top of the money wind farm owners make from selling electricity and are proportionate to the amount of energy each turbine produces.
Typically, the subsidy is worth the same amount again as the electricity an onshore turbine produces. And the more electricity a turbine generates, the greater the ROC payment.
Last year the scheme, which also offers incentives to providers of other renewable energies, paid out more than £1.1billion. The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates the ROC policy adds £26 to each household electricity bill, rising to £50 by 2016.
In October, the government said subsidies to renewable sources would be cut – but wind power escaped relatively lightly. Onshore wind farms will have their subsidies cut gradually by 10 per cent, while offshore wind farms – which cost more to build because they are out at sea – will receive their current support until 2015, after which it will be reduced by 5 per cent in successive years.
How many wind farms are there and how many will there be?
According to RenewableUK, the wind industry’s professional body, there are currently 3,538 turbines in 325 farms in Britain. Around
3,000 are onshore with the rest offshore. At least 4,500 more turbines are expected to go up onshore as the green energy “boom” continues – with another 7,000 offshore. A Sunday telegraph analysis of wind farms last year concluded that about two-thirds are in the hands of foreign-owned companies.
What complaints do people have about wind farms?
Complaints have come thick and fast over the years. Opponents claim they are ugly and obtrusive and are destroying unspoilt countryside. By definition, wind turbines – which can be up to 450ft high – are best placed on hillsides where they are visible for miles around.
Critics also allege they are noisy, can cause nausea and dizziness and disrupt birdlife. Besides rows over the cost, there are obviously problems when the wind doesn’t blow. Opponents point out that back-up electricity supplies in the form of old-fashioned coal power stations will still be needed on calm, cold days. There are even problems when the wind blows too much.
Turbines are unstable when the wind speeds are above 56 miles per hour. Energy companies have also been paid large sums – in the form of constraint payments – to switch turbines off when they help to produce more electricity than the National Grid needs. On those occasions, energy companies can be given money to switch turbines off.
Opponents found a royal champion last November in the Duke of Edinburgh, who branded wind farms a “disgrace”.
What will planning laws say about wind farms?
The MPs who have written to the Prime Minister are concerned that the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will lessen the chances that local people will be able to defeat planning applications for new onshore farms. They have suggested changes to the framework which would force authorities to take the beauty of local landscapes into account in making their decisions.
As it is currently worded the NPPF, which has finished its public consultation and is awaiting rubber-stamping by ministers, tells authorities to plan positively for sustainable development in which, it says, renewable energy schemes play a key role.