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How to end England's onshore wind ban
What Houston can teach us about making reform stick
Keele University’s Low Carbon Energy Generation Park is just 15 minutes drive from Stoke City FC’s Bet365 Stadium. The park, which may eventually provide up to half of the energy on Keele’s campus, hosts two wind turbines capable of providing almost 2 megawatts worth of power on a wet and windy Tuesday night. These two wind turbines might seem rather insignificant, but they hold a dubious honour. Keele’s wind turbines happen to be the only onshore wind turbines built in England in the last three years. In fact, just 21 individual wind turbines (not wind farms) have been built onshore in England since 2018. Adding up their respective wattages (43.8MW) gives us enough to power 86,000 homes.
Let’s put that into context. According to the Global Wind Energy Council in the years 2020 and 2021, the world added 160GW worth of onshore wind generation (n.b. a gigawatt is 1000 megawatts). France added enough to power almost two million homes (2.5GW), Germany added enough to power two and a half million homes (3.4GW), and the USA added enough onshore wind turbines to power a massive 22 million homes (29.7GWs).
The UK as a whole did a bit better than England, building out 450MW worth of onshore wind generation in 2020 and 2021 – enough to power every house (but not every business) in Nottingham.
But almost all of that was built in Scotland, not England. Partly this is because Scotland is where it's windiest, but mostly because since 2016 England, unlike Scotland, has had an effective ban on new onshore wind developments.
The existing rules only permit onshore wind turbines in England if they are in pre-designated locations and have unanimous support. In other words, a single objection could lead to a project being blocked. As a result, since 2016, planning permission has only been granted for 16 turbines in England.
I recently sat in on a focus group in the North East (admittedly the most pro-onshore wind region of England) where this system was explained. The group was unanimously opposed and surprised the rules were so restrictive.
Research from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit estimates that households across the UK are paying a combined £800m more this winter as a result of the ban. If the ban had never come into place, and instead the UK had continued to build onshore wind farms at the pre-ban rate, then 1.7GW would have been added by last Winter. ECIU calculated this would have been enough to power 1.5m homes and avoid enough gas being burnt to heat 500,000 homes.
At £42 per MW, onshore wind is now one of the cheapest forms of energy available. With the average annual energy bill hitting £2,500, it’s not surprising that poll after poll shows widespread support for lifting the ban on onshore wind. A Britain Remade poll carried out by YouGov found that just 11% opposed allowing onshore wind developments to proceed if a majority of local residents supported them – 63% polled backed the reform. Another poll we ran found that two-thirds (67%) of the public backed building onshore wind turbines in their local area. Support rose to 78% in the North East and 70% in Yorkshire. In fact, in no part of the UK (except London for understandable reasons) were more than a quarter of people opposed to building onshore wind farms in their local area.
The widespread popularity of onshore wind and the potential for large bill savings have created substantial cross-party pressure to lift this irrational ban. A Conservative backbench rebellion led by Simon Clarke forced Rishi Sunak to finally revise his position on onshore wind. The PM offered a compromise: a technical consultation focused on “how local authorities demonstrate local support and respond to views of their communities when considering onshore wind development in England.” (The consultation is now open and will close in early March.)
It’s not hard to come up with a better model for onshore wind than England’s status quo. The challenge is developing a solution that addresses the concerns of some residents that led Conservative backbenchers to campaign for onshore wind being banned in England in the first place.
Sitting in focus groups over the past few weeks makes clear that while people support onshore wind and are not necessarily NIMBYs, they do want an opportunity to have their voice heard in the planning process and do have strong convictions around fairness.
A recent report from a group of Conservative backbenchers put forward a model where every development would be put to a referendum and energy bill discounts would be granted to residents based on their distance to the wind farm.
“We propose that everyone living within four miles of a proposed renewable energy facility should be given a vote.
“To compensate local residents, all households within one mile of the proposed scheme should receive a 100% discount on their energy bills, and all households within three miles should receive a 50% discount, and those living within four miles should receive a 25% discount for the lifetime of the project”
This approach has its attractions. In a referendum, everyone’s vote counts equally so we avoid situations where a small, but politically significant minority, can overrule the majority.
But, I have some concerns. First, the Backbench Committee’s report suggests applying this to all renewable projects creating a new unnecessary hurdle to solar, which doesn’t have anywhere near the visual impact at long distances seen with wind. Second, there’s a cost to running a referendum and it’s not clear they’re always necessary.
What I find most concerning is the prescriptive approach to discounts. The principle that those most affected by a scheme should benefit the most chimes with most people’s idea of fairness, but mandating discounts may make some projects unviable. Given that wind farms create jobs and reduce carbon emissions, some communities may wish to allow projects without discounts if they would otherwise be uneconomic. On top of that, developers who are experienced at navigating planning and engaging communities are likely to have a better idea of what will or won’t fly.
Some renewable developers may even want to make bill discounts conditional on consumers switching to them as a supplier. This would create a stronger incentive to deploy more renewables but wouldn’t be viable under a one-size-fits-all central diktat. Other schemes might want to offer local communities the chance to buy shares in a project. What works in one place, might not work in another and that’s OK.
Houston, we have a solution
Houston is rather unusual in the US. Unlike most cities, it doesn’t have a system of zoning. However, land use in Houston is not a complete free for all. There are still rules which mandate minimum lot sizes and parking requirements.
Minimum lot sizes in effect prevent property owners from dividing up their plot to include a number of homes (instead of just one detached family home). The impact is typically higher rents and house prices. But in 1998, Houston was able to dramatically slash minimum lot sizes from 464msq to 130msq within the 610 Loop – the city’s urban core housing over 400,000 people. This was a massive planning reform.
So why did this deregulation not generate anywhere near as much controversy compared to the UK’s rather modest housing targets? The trick was allowing ‘opt-outs’. If 5 residents in a block or 51% of property owners in an area signed a petition, it could trigger a vote on the old rules. If 60% of residents back the existing rules at the vote, then the new rules would not go into effect for at least 40 years.
This led to some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods blocking development, but still allowed for a substantial increase in housing supply across the city. Some areas saw densities more than double. Planning researchers Nolan M. Gray and Adam A. Millsap calculated the reform added 25,000 extra units of housing close to major job centres in Houston.
I think something similar might work for onshore wind.
A Community Safeguard for Onshore Wind
Why not replace the absurd requirement for unanimous consent with a democratic safeguard? Under this model, onshore wind would go through the local planning system the same way as solar farms or housing developments currently do. However, if a community was opposed to a new project going ahead due to its impact on views or house prices, then there’d be an additional opportunity to block the project – over and above what is currently possible in the planning system.
If more than 20% of residents in a local area - let’s say a 3km radius around the development - band together and sign a petition, it would trigger a referendum. If a majority of residents vote to support the wind farm then it will go ahead, if a majority of residents vote to block the development then it won’t.
Under this system, projects wouldn’t be held to ransom by a single objector. No longer would communities be denied the prospect of cheaper energy bills, such as those proposed by Octopus Energy’s Fan Club scheme, by one difficult person. At the same time, developers wouldn’t be able to force through a project against the views of the affected community.
Based on our polling and focus groups, I suspect the 20% threshold to trigger a vote will rarely be met. Onshore wind is overwhelmingly popular and when bill discounts are on offer support rises further.
The real question is whether or not this idea will be sufficient to win over onshore wind sceptics in Parliament. I think it might. When one of the biggest opponents of onshore wind in parliament John Hayes MP was asked about Rishi Sunak’s compromise consultation, he welcomed it stating that “It leaves local authorities in power to reject wind turbines. For those people who want them, their local authorities can go ahead, and those who don’t want them will be entirely entitled to stop them.” This scheme does just that.
Britain Remade have launched a new petition to put pressure on the Government to legalise new onshore wind developments in England. If you think that banning an energy source that’s more than twice as cheap as gas is a terrible idea, why not sign it.
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