COP26 president Alok Sharma’s choice of the giant Whitelee Wind Farm as backdrop to his “six months to go” rallying call ahead of the crucial UN climate summit might be the nearest thing the UK onshore wind industry gets to an apology.
In an irony that will not be lost on Britain’s renewable energy sector, Sharma’s call to “consign coal to history” has uncomfortable echoes of his Conservative Party’s rhetoric on onshore wind power not all that long ago.
From 2015, when it won an election on a manifesto that promised to “halt the spread” of subsidised wind on land, the Conservatives waged a five-year campaign against the UK onshore sector and, to a lesser extent, solar PV.
Taking aim at the wind industry was back then a useful drum to bang for the Conservatives at their core voters in the English shires, where climate scepticism was stoked by a media keen to talk up the cost of what it regarded as little more than a hippy racket against the honest taxpayer.
The party obliged by excluding onshore wind and large-scale solar from the flagship contract-for-difference (CfD) support scheme and by introducing new planning rules it boasted would run turbines out of town.
The predictable result was a plunge in installations after 2017, the last year in which subsidies were available. Scotland, home of some of Europe’s best resources for wind on land, was among the loudest dissenting voices but lacked the power to act, with energy susbsidies controlled by the UK government in London.
This is not a matter of ancient history.
It was not until last year that the cheapest source of new zero-carbon electricity was brought back into the fold of the CfD scheme, as the Conservatives – with Sharma at that stage energy secretary – faced up to the reality that hosting a historic climate summit with the ban in place would look ridiculous.
A legal challenge to the exclusion from exasperated developers added to the pressure, and experts queued up to warn ministers that the UK’s world-leading 2050 net zero ambition would be impossible unless large-scale onshore renewables were given a route to market of some kind.
Meanwhile, onshore wind has managed to cling on thanks to its sheer competitiveness, with corporate power deals ensuring that at least some large projects can advance. WindEurope expects additions to bump along at 450MW this year and next, but then double in the following years.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who one said climate science was a “stone age religion”, now wants wind power to “boil every kettle in Britain”.
The cornerstone of meeting that goal will be the UK’s world-leading offshore wind sector, where this government and its predecessors deserve credit for marrying ambition with policy. Britain has also made huge strides over eliminating coal and in other key areas of the energy transition.
As far as onshore wind is concerned, however, the Conservative Party’s belated recognition of its mistake should not disguise the damage done when short-term political expediency and reckless rhetoric 'Trump' science and economics. We had enough of that from Donald.