On Monday, the government did something remarkable. In the windiest country in Europe, it finally ended a five-year block on new onshore wind turbines. It’s a victory for campaigners, and anyone who wants action on the climate crisis and cares about lower energy bills in future.
The government has hopefully ended a strategy – begun by David Cameron in 2015 – of making energy policy in direct contradiction to public opinion. No two issues define this tendency more than the government’s seemingly unshakeable support for fracking – and the insistent de facto ban on new onshore wind turbines.
Of course, it didn’t actually ban new onshore wind turbines in 2015. Making them illegal would have been absurd. Instead, post-election, it swiftly attacked from two angles. First, it imposed onerous planning barriers on new wind projects in England, which led planning applications to shrivel by 95% by 2018. Second, it prevented onshore wind projects from bidding for the kind of long-term clean energy contracts that are available to other power sources like nuclear and offshore wind farms that are needed to get them built. Perversely, this was only possible by also blocking solar power from the auctions – meaning the two cheapest sources of clean energy were suddenly out in the cold.
In subsequent years, the government’s own in-depth attitude trackers showed public support for fracking plummeting as low as 15% by 2018, yet it backed the industry to the hilt – even proposing at one point to make fracking wells “permitted developments”, effectively reducing them to the planning status of a garden wall. Over the same period, 75% of the public supported onshore wind turbines – by this point cheaper than any source of power from fossil fuels. The government response was to look the other way, despite the UK having a world-class wind resource, and new turbines being the cheapest way to provide power for its citizens.
That was until the announcement on Monday that the next round of clean energy auctions, to be held in 2021, would include both onshore wind and solar once more. These auctions award contracts that effectively set a floor price for power sold from new projects, which in effect acts as a subsidy over the lifetime of the project if the floor price is higher than the market price for power. Onshore wind is now so cheap its floor price is expected to be at, or even below, current market prices. To translate, that means new onshore wind projects should be free of government subsidy, another bell tolling on the future of fossil fuels.
It shouldn’t have been this hard – and we’ve certainly lost valuable time – but climate campaigners should celebrate forcing the reversal of fortunes between fracking and wind. The former is now fighting for survival, the latter is back in from the cold – just as the public wanted. Add in bringing forward the petrol and diesel car ban to 2035, a pledge to spend GBP9bn on domestic energy efficiency in the Conservative election manifesto and the decision not to appeal the seismic Heathrow judgment, and you might be forgiven for wondering if we’re seeing something bigger at work within this new government.
Of course, it’s too early to tell for sure. The fracking industry was brought to its knees by a combination of brave and indefatigable grassroots campaigning and Tory MPs vexed at what fracking meant for their constituencies. It became clear the government was backing a losing horse. With the economics and social licence of fossil fuels receding weekly, it seems unlikely to remount any time soon.
An almost equally long-standing – though less high-profile – public campaign helped ensure the thorn of onshore wind never left the government’s side. But its success is perhaps indicative that from atop his 80-seat majority, Boris Johnson is indeed willing to upset backbenchers to take action on the climate crisis. Make no mistake: there will be parliamentary colleagues of his for whom this change in direction is the stuff of nightmares. A backlash from the usual suspects orbiting 55 Tufton Street – the London home of many groups associated with climate denial – can’t be far off.
So, will it stick? This is a question with relevance not just to wind turbines, but to much of what lies ahead if we are to cut emissions rapidly. Whether it’s the intrusive work of replacing domestic gas boilers, the fraught territory of reducing private car use, or delicate nudges to shift diets, around each policy corner lies a potential battle.
As ever, this risk is exacerbated when policies are seen to be imposed from above. Yet new wind turbines could be owned and led directly by communities, councils, local businesses or key services such as hospitals. There is no reason wind projects can’t become synonymous with bottom-up climate action that communities are proud of and benefit from. That would put them beyond the reach of reactionary scaremongering.
Yet for this to happen, yesterdays’s announcement only takes us so far. In England, while the block on onshore wind competing for clean energy contracts has been lifted, onerous planning blocks on turbines still remain. This rules out a full wind renaissance south of the border. The government must have the courage to remove them, so we can start building our new energy system – this time from the ground up.
o Max Wakefield is director of campaigns at the climate action organisation Possible