David Cameron’s Conservative party promised U.K. voters on Thursday that ending subsidies for onshore wind farms would be made a priority if the party wins a majority in next year’s election. In addition to scrapping subsidies, the party also pledged to change the planning system for wind farms, giving local councils the power to block any new projects which do not already have planning permission.
“We now have enough bill payer-funded onshore wind in the pipeline to meet our renewable energy commitments and there’s no requirement for any more,” said Conservative energy minister Michael Fallon in making the announcement. “That’s why the next Conservative government will end any additional bill payer subsidy for onshore wind and give local councils the decisive say on any new wind farms.”
The U.K. has indeed seen an explosion in wind farm development in recent years. With 13.8 gigawatts (GW) of onshore wind already built, under construction or granted planning permission, the country is on track to meet its goal of 11 GW to 13 GW by 2020. There are currently 4,000 onshore wind turbines powering four million homes with another 3,000 turbines in the works.
But critics of the Conservative plan point out that onshore wind is still by far the cheapest source of renewable energy in the U.K., so while cutting the subsidies probably won’t endanger the nation’s ability to meet its EU mandated targets, it may make it more expensive.
According to an analysis by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment at the London School of Economics, onshore wind turbines typically cost around 7-9 pence (12-15 cents) per kilowatt-hour, or about half the cost of offshore wind, which is currently the renewable energy source most favored by Conservative leaders.
In addition to the price difference, the plan has also been criticized as extremely short-sighted. Presumably 15 percent renewables by 2020 is not the U.K.’s ultimate clean energy goal, and it may take development of all forms of renewable energy technology to meet more ambitious, yet to be determined targets. The U.K. is currently ranked as the fifth most attractive place in the world for investment in renewable energy by Ernst and Young, but this ranking may slip if the government turns its back on one of the most promising forms of renewable energy.
“Putting the brakes on onshore wind would be disastrous for business and jobs in our growing green economy,” Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy and Climate Change Secretary told Reuters.
As much as anything, the decision by the Conservative party to come out against onshore wind may be motivated by fears that the emerging U.K. Independence Party, which is opposed to both offshore and onshore wind, will steal the Conservative’s rural voting base.
The recent boom in onshore wind development has been decried as an eyesore and a blight on the landscape, in many rural communities, which are heavily dependent on tourism dollars.
The Conservative party’s plan to win back its base was made public the day after the U.K. government announced it was awarding investment contracts to eight renewable projects around the country — five offshore wind farms and three biomass plants. Under the contracts, the wind farms and biomass plants are guaranteed a minimum price for their electricity for the next 15 years. The subsidies are expected to add just £11 to the average household electricity bill by 2020.
The renewable projects are expected to create 8,500 jobs and produce 4.5 GW of clean energy.