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The silent resurgence of onshore wind

  • United Kingdom
  • Real estate

20-11-2020

In June 2019, the UK was the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law. It committed the UK to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Decarbonising the electricity generation sector is key to achieving this goal and Boris Johnson’s Conference announcement contained strong encouragement, especially for developers of offshore wind. But what about more established technology?

The absence of a namecheck for onshore wind may have had more to do with its political sensitivity than its potential contribution to net zero and the economy. Not long after its peak 2014 when 400 new wind farms began operating, subsidy support was abandoned outright. It’s much easier to talk about capturing the North Sea winds, where one’s neighbours are a few non-voting seals and the odd container vessel.

But in March, for the first time in four years, the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced it would include auctions for “established” technologies, such as onshore wind and solar, in the 2021 CfD allocation. This may reflect a recognition that onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of renewables and could make a very significant contribution. Recent research by RenewableUK shows the total capacity of onshore wind could grow to 30GW – more than doubling the UK’s current operational capacity of 13.6GW.

Allowing onshore wind and solar to compete for CfD was a major change and has triggered a surge of development activity. But it is far more nuanced than before. As part of its aim to become subsidy free, onshore wind energy development has become very competitive. Only the best projects will succeed and these are likely to be in areas of high wind speed, often in Scotland, where the industry has hardly skipped a beat.

A key aspect of successful projects is likely to be much larger turbines with many schemes now using turbine sizes historically only seen offshore to make maximum use of the wind. On site battery storage is also now a common feature.

However, such projects have their challenges. With larger turbines comes increased environmental effects, notably landscape and visual, but often not markedly so given the significant increase in energy yield from the longer blades. Put simply, these schemes are providing significantly more bang for their environmental buck.

Developers often say that all the easy sites have already been developed, but let’s not forget about the potential of extensions and repowers. There is about to be a wave of existing projects that will need to have their consents extended. In many cases they were designed for a far more generous subsidy regime and will only remain viable if they are also increased in tip height. Sites which have previously been judged as acceptable locations for wind energy may even be the thin end of the wedge for a resurgence of onshore wind in England and Wales.

The latest poll recorded that 78 percent of the British public now support onshore wind, so surely the time is right to release the blades.

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