Wind slowed down by policy – report

Government policy on windfarms and other renewable energy projects is out of sync with technological development, a report has claimed.

Wind power technologies change faster than planning applications are processed, while the Renewables Obligation holds back new technologies like offshore wind, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Planning delays rather than outright refusals are the biggest obstacle for onshore wind, said David Toke, senior lecturer in environmental policy at Birmingham University and one of the contributors to the ESRC’s Catalysing Innovation for Sustainability report.

The most severe delays are experiences in Scotland and Northern Ireland, he said, and are particularly damaging as the majority of wind farm projects are located in Scotland.

“The Scottish Executive only has one official dealing with wind power planning applications. This means that the applications take so long that technology changes in the wind industry before the planning permission comes through,” he told edie.

The delays “seriously reduce the rate of implementation of the wind power programme and mean that the renewables obligation is more behind schedule than it otherwise would be,” he added.

As for proposals made by the Barker Review to facilitate the planning process for wind farms by feeding it through an independent commission (see related story), Dr Toke dismissed these as a “technocratic solution” that “will not wish away controversies surrounding planning proposals.”

“I think there are some simple mechanisms to speed up wind power considerations one of which is appointing at least one other person to process these applications. But I think that politically impossible to wish away controversies and protests from the public.”

“If you’ve got a lot of people writing into MPs and MPs worried that they will lose votes the MPs will lobby the ministers and the ministers will get onto their civil servants and the outcomes will be no different than at the moment.

“We live in a democratic society with a lot of activity on planning issues and I can’t see how this independent commission is going to make any difference in practice,” he said. If anything, it could “wind up the objectors even more,” he added.

The Renebles Obligation itself is given as another example of policy failing to promote emerging renewables solutions in the report. While the policy has had some success, investors are deterred by the uncertainty around the future value of renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) needed to make green electricity prices competitive. Offshore wind which requires higher investments suffers particularly from this predicament.

Government should consider fixing renewable energy prices instead – an approach taken in Spain and Denmark and known as a “feed-in tariff” – Dr Toke believes.

“A feed-in tariff system would particularly help off-shore where there is less confidence in the technology compared to onshore and where more security would reduce costs because investors would require much lower risk premiums,” he said.

“The RO is having a considerable amount of success in at last getting Britain into the premier league of wind power nations by getting capacity together,” he said – but a feed-in tariff system as implemented in Denmark, Spain or Germany, countries that are far ahead of Britain in exploiting their wind resources, would considerably increase confidence.

“This would also make onshore cheaper – particularly if you had a German or French-style system, whereby the income stream for wind power is linked to onsite wind speeds,” Dr Toke said.

“It is quite remarkable that despite the fact that wind speed energy availability in Germany is on average a good 40% lower, that the RO seems to be producing energy that is more expensive in this country.”

But “it is infinitely better to have the RO than no system at all,” he added.

The study also looked at other major problems plaguing the wind industry, including lack of access to the grid and reasons for planning refusals.

It found that communities rejecting windfarms were more likely to have “higher than average possession of social capital” with many people self-employed or owning their own businesses – attributes associated with so-called “chocolate box villages.”

But rejections from planning authorities were “not as high as media impressions suggest” with 60% applications accepted in England and Wales and 75% in Scotland.

In the UK, the attitudes of local people can be crucial in determining whether a wind farm is built or not. But some wind developers, such as Wind Prospect, are encouraging groups that back wind farms to counter anti-wind farm campaigns.

Calls to move investment from onshore wind to other renewable technologies are misguided, the study found, as alternatives to onshore wind are “invariably expensive, apart from limited resources of some biofuels.” Curbing the spending on onshore wind would therefore damage the prospects of meeting RO targets, they said.

Overall, the report identified a need for more coordination between policies promoting sustainable technologies and the realities of the renewables industry. “Our research shows that radical innovation is needed for environmental sustainability embracing a blend of technological and social change,” said Sustainable Technologies Programme director Prof Fred Steward:

“We urgently need policy innovations to fill the gap between public investment in technological research and efforts to influence social behaviour through, for example, green taxes,” he said.

The research findings are outlined in the Catalysing Innovation for Sustainability which sums the ESRC’s Sustainable Technologies Programme, covering a range of sustainable technology issues.

Goska Romanowicz

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