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Untangling John Hayes on wind power

  • 31 Oct 2012, 13:20
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Shutters Photographic

Comments by Tory energy minister John Hayes have inspired conflicting statements about the government's wind policy in the UK media today. We untangle the mess.

Confusion reigns over the government's attitude to renewable energy targets. The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph are today lauding the "end of the windfarm", just as trade body RenewableUK and the Financial Times have issued positive reports on the industry's prospects.

Hayes praised the renewable industry at trade body RenewableUK's conference in Glasgow yesterday. But in remarks the minister briefed to the Mail and Telegraph he implied that the government will allow no new onshore windfarms to be proposed, leading to front-page splashes in both papers. So what's going on?

Speeches and front pages

Yesterday, Hayes said the government supported "renewable energy of the right kind" in a Guardian column. At the RenewableUK conference later that evening, he said renewables need " the right kind of framework" to give investors certainty.

But according to the Guardian, this supportive tone didn't reflect the speech Hayes originally wanted to give. Hayes's boss, Energy Secretary Ed Davey, allegedly told Hayes to rewrite his planned remarks, which were apparently less-than enthusiastic about wind.

It appears the first draft of the speech provides the basis for front page articles in the Mail and Telegraph today. The Mail translated Hayes's quotes as 'Minister signals end of the wind farm', while the Daily Telegraph went for 'Death knell for wind farms'.

Hayes tells the Telegraph:

'We can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities. I can't single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.'

Hayes says he has asked the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, to look into the effect of wind farms on "house prices, and other quality of life issues".

Enough wind already?

According to the Telegraph and the Mail, Hayes argues that "even if a minority of [wind farms] in the [planning] system is built" the UK will reach its 2020 renewable energy targets.

The Mail says:

"The Government has set a target of increasing the amount of power generated by onshore wind farms to 13 gigawatts (GW) by 2020."

In fact, there is no government target for the amount of power to be generated by onshore wind - there's just the EU target that says renewables must provide 15 per cent of energy generation by 2020. To meet this, the government has projected that onshore wind "could contribute up to around 13GW" by that date.

Figures from  RenewableUK show that around 5GW of onshore wind power is already in operation, a further 2GW is under construction and around 4GW has been consented by the planning process. Together, that's around 11GW.

Roughly 7.5GW is currently being considered by the planning process, and not all of these projects will necessarily get built. If they did, there would be around 18.5GW of onshore wind in total.

So whatever the tone of his remarks, Hayes appears to be right when he says that that even if a minority of wind power currently in planning is built, this will provide the amount of onshore wind the government is (loosely) aiming for.

Operational 5.01038 GW
Under construction 2.15640 GW
Consented 3.93011 GW
In Planning 7.41885 GW
TOTAL 18.51574 GW

UK onshore wind farms that are operational, under construction or going through the planning system. Source: RenewableUK

Change in policy?

So does this mean a change in government policy? In fact, putting aside the tone and the fact that they ended up on the front page of the two newspapers that have been consistently hostile towards wind power, there seems to be little of substance in Hayes's remarks.

Conservativehome believes Hayes "probably let his rhetoric run ahead of the situation", while The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) says in a statement this morning that "there has been no change to government policy on renewable energy".

DECC is currently conducting a review exploring how windfarm developers can ensure communities benefit from windfarms. But, it says, it is not looking into windfarms' effect on property values or landscape. DECC's hastily-issued statement says that government is still committed to onshore wind as "one of the cheapest renewables".

Familiar arguments against wind

The Mail piece also contains supportive words for Hayes from Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who says:

"This is a huge step forward. These awful turbines do nothing for the environment - they barely reduce CO2- they force up energy billsand put more people into fuel poverty."

These are familiar arguments. Are they right?

Heaton-Harris's claim that wind power doesn't reduce carbon dioxide emissions probably assumes that gas turbines providing back-up to wind power will cancel out emissions savings. Academics at Imperial College have quite convincingly pulled this argument apart, saying that it's based on illogical assumptions.

As to wind power forcing up energy bills - households currently pay around £21 to fund the Renewables Obligation, which provides direct government support for  renewables. Not all of this goes to support wind power. The Committee on Climate Change estimates green policies will raise energy bills by about  £110 by 2020. Of this, they estimate £50 will be due to wind power. Here's  more . Over the past few years, renewables subsidies have been overshadowed by the rising cost of gas, which is the main reason bills have gone up.

Onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of renewable power. If building less onshore wind means building more offshore, or more of other renewable technologies, this may itself push bills up.

Lastly, on fuel poverty - does it make sense to say one particular component of an energy bill push people into fuel poverty? When we  examined the question, about half of the £18 of the average energy bill that directly subsidies renewable power went to wind - £9 per year (The total has since risen to £21). Heaton-Harris suggests this extra £9 pushes 50,000 people into fuel poverty each year. But bills are going up for a range of reasons, with the most significant being  rising wholesale gas prices.

Hayes's remarks do not appear to signal a shift in government policy. They probably don't even give a clear indication of the prospects for onshore wind in the UK. But it's clear that with different DECC ministers differing so strongly in tone and emphasis, the political struggle in government over energy policy continues behind the scenes.

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