The energy production and supply sector in Britain is a complex network of different resources and technologies, vastly different from that operated just a few decades ago.
Its success in transforming from the dirty coal burning power stations of the 1970s to a modern and clean user of renewable energy sources, will be central to our achievement (or otherwise) of the country’s net zero ambitions in the near future.
The rapid rate of change is demonstrated by the contribution of different renewable sources to our overall energy supply from 9.4% in the year 2000 (when nuclear supplied 8.4%) to 21.2% some 10 years later, with bioenergy supplying 7.5%, nuclear contributing 6.6%, wind at 4% and solar just 0.7%.
Among the general public there’s a strong appetite for expanding green energy
The need for local backing
Onshore wind is one of the cheapest and greenest ways to produce sustainable energy but whether it expands or not looks set to remain stuck in the ‘too difficult to resolve’ box for a while longer, in spite of an attempt to unblock it.
Since 2015/16 there has been a virtual moratorium on the building of any new onshore wind farms in England.
Back then David Cameron introduced strict planning requirements - only allowing local authorities to grant permission if there was backing from the local community and it was included in local plans.
Among the present Government’s backbenchers any attempt to lift the moratorium has proven to be even more inflammatory than Whitehall mandarins setting compulsory housebuilding targets for leafy shire districts in the south of the country.
Focus on offshore wind
Instead the Government’s focus has been on expanding our capacity for offshore wind, although of late that has been widended to include contributions from the ‘old world solutions’ of North Sea oil and gas, and even opening a new coal mine, as well as expanding its nuclear power options.
In trying to reduce our reliance on energy from overseas, we appear to be severly undermining our net zero carbon emission commitments in the fight to combat climate change.
We are also failing to harness a low cost, tried and tested solution that can deliver green energy relatively quickly.
It is estimated that onshore wind turbines can be producing electricity within two years of a new farm being approved and within months of shovels breaking ground. Hence, the recent intervention from the National Infrastructure Commission.
The commission is recommending the Government changes the law to bring onshore wind back into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects system as soon as possible – this would allow for centralised decisions and remove applications for new windfarms from the decision-making morass of council planning committees.
The 64,000 dollar question this raises is ‘will the Government risk enraging its backbenchers by accepting the recommendation?’
Kier Starmer has already indicated that a Labour Government will go down this path, but with a General Election likely to be held within the next 18 months Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears to be taking a more cautious approach. A faltering economy appears to be making the PM particularly nervous.
The pain of historically high prices for gas and electricity is being felt by industry, commerce and retail, as well as the general population with house owners and tenants struggling with the bills for heating their homes.
The number of people falling into fuel poverty has risen hugely in the past year. Politicians are all too aware that if energy prices do not fall soon then a huge impact is likely to be felt at the ballot box.
Siting of turbines can be problematic
Of course the conundrum over whether or not to proceed with more onshore wind farms is not a simple one and there are many pros and cons.
The windiest parts of Britain are offshore, so it makes perfect sense to locate most windfarms out at sea. But we also need to maximise our use of different sources of renewable energy and to not become over dependant on any single source.
It was not until 1991 that the first commercial onshore windfarm was opened at Delabole in north Cornwall, partly as a demonstration project. Its turbines were able to produce sufficient power for just 2,700 homes.
Leap forward 30 years and the Hornsea 2 windfarm some 55 miles off the Yorkshire coast can generate enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes, while the nearby Dogger Bank windfarm will be capable of powering 6 million homes when it is fully operational.
According to national polling some 70% of the public want there to be more onshore windfarms, so long as they are not situated close to where they live – that’s a pretty big caveat, but not an insurmountable one!
The energy provider Octopus found that 91% of customers surveyed said they would like a wind turbine in their local community if it meant cheaper electricity.
As already stated new onshore windfarms are much quicker and cheaper to deliver than offshore wind or new nuclear power plants. They are also a proven source of clean energy unlike the long awaited input from hydrogen gas into the network.
They do not have to be located on land earmarked for new housing and they can be co-located on land reserved for food production, or near to forests, or open stretches of land and water, including reservoirs. There are around 1,500 onshore windfarms dotted across Britain, many of them in coastal areas or on exposed elevations.
A least worst solution?
However, there are no ‘issue free’ solutions associated with the siting of any energy production sources currently under consideration. There are downsides to all of them and as ever, it is very much a question of how can the perceived disadvantages be mitigated.
Concerns have been raised that wind turbines pose a serious threat to birds, although the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that if they are positioned away from major flocks then they would have "minimal impacts".
The noise of turbine blades has also been raised as an objection. There are no requirements for a minimum distance between turbines and homes - although some local authorities have set a distance of half a mile.
From a 300 metres distance, a turbine produces sound at 43 decibels - two below the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organization.
We will never be wholly reliant on wind power because of its unreliability,
although wind power can be generated all day and all night but it is difficult to predict. Overall the country generated 14% less wind power in 2021 than in 2020, despite having 4.4% more capacity because of lower average wind speeds in 2021.
Among the general public there appears to be a much stronger appetite for expanding our use of green energy. As we scale back our use of gas, the demand for electricity is set to grow rapidly through to 2050 and we surely need to increase our investment in onshore wind and solar.
Amid the biggest cost of living crisis in memory and inflation at its highest rate for more than 40 years and stubbornly refusing to fall, the country is crying out for cuts in our energy bills. But will our politicians heed their call?