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Ready for a windfall?


By Cathal Kavanagh

Current consultations and the 2023 local elections stand to impact the onshore wind industry’s potential for growth

It’s not often that a single statistic manages to grab your attention in the same way as RenewableUK’s recent announcement that only two onshore wind turbines were constructed in England in 2022.

That’s two – not two windfarms, not two major centres of growth, not 2GW of capacity – but two solitary turbines across the whole of the country.

The sluggish pace of growth in the UK’s onshore wind sector can seem like a puzzle when looking at the energy system from the outside.  In other areas of the energy sector, not least in offshore wind, growth has been seriously impressive, with over 3.1GW of new offshore capacity being installed in 2022, smashing the previous record from 2018 and with further major projects in the pipeline.

Back on shore, the UK solar sector is enjoying its own growth spurt, while a record 800MWh of utility-scale battery storage was also installed over the course of 2022.

Of course, other renewable and storage sectors aren’t faced with the same planning constraints that affect onshore wind. Following the infamous 2015 push to row back on what a former Prime Minister termed ‘green crap’, the onshore wind pipeline in the UK dried up almost completely. Requirements were put in place for new onshore wind sites to be both allocated for renewable development in local plans and for projects to demonstrate the backing of entire communities – in effect, meaning a single objection could prevent projects from gaining consent.

Consultations launched late in 2022, including changes to the NPPF, have the potential to remove some of the barriers to onshore deployment. Replacing older turbines with newer models will become easier. Sites would no longer need to be allocated for renewable development in the local plan, though the local authority would still need some kind of document to set out which sites are deemed acceptable. Language around developments requiring the “backing” of communities has been tweaked, with a proposed new NPPF footnote saying that “support” of the community affected.

Despite the potential for onshore development to be loosened up, the broad tenor of the changes has been seen as a bit underwhelming by the industry. To take one example, the proposal to bring more windfarms under the auspices of the NSIP planning regime have been dropped, with local planning authorities retaining oversight over applications.

Whether the new settlement for onshore wind will manage to unlock more capacity by making it easier to build will mostly depend on the details – the text of the updated NPPF, the final form taken by Levelling Up legislation, and the political priorities of individual councils.

With 227 local authorities set to hold elections on 4 May, including 132 councils holding all-out elections, the local political landscape has the potential to change drastically in large parts of the country. As ever, the future prospects of onshore wind will be dependent on developers maintaining strong relationships with politicians and officers, and proving that they are willing to engage proactively with affected communities to ensure that projects have the buy-in the law requires.

Considering approaching a council about the potential for new onshore development? Cratus would be delighted to help – get in touch!