Britain’s move to relax restrictions on onshore wind development reflects the drastically more challenging power market situation since the invasion of Ukraine, a UK energy minister told Recharge.
“In 2015 we didn’t have an energy crisis, we didn’t have a war in Ukraine, we didn’t have the whole of Europe scrambling for renewable energy supplies,” Lord Martin Callanan told Recharge when asked why the governing UK Conservative Party finally chose last week to announce the relaxation of strict planning rules on onshore wind development in England that were first imposed seven years ago.
While renewable energy groups welcomed the prospect of changes to restrictions that sent onshore development off a cliff, they also slammed the lost opportunity to build multiple gigawatts of much-needed capacity in the intervening years.
But Lord Callanan, an under secretary of state in the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy below newly-appointed secretary of state Jacob Rees-Mogg, declined to say the 2015 onshore wind clampdown was a mistake, claiming the restrictions were imposed “in the context of the time” when there was “a lot of concern in different communities about the expansion of onshore wind”.
“I think the environment has changed now. I think communities are more accepting of some of these projects.
“We still think there needs to be community consent [and] how community consent is judged is a difficult process” but it is now “appropriate to move onshore wind projects out more into the standard renewable energy planning approval process on the same basis other renewables projects are consented.”
It’s always easy to look back... with the benefit of hindsight.
Lord Callanan added: “It’s always easy to look back on something that happened six or seven years ago and with the benefit of hindsight say, well, you should have taken a different decision.
“Time has moved on now. There is now an energy crisis, there is now a shortage of gas in Europe, Putin has invaded Ukraine. We’ve got to look perhaps to take more risks with infrastructure that we didn’t need to take then.”
'Speed consent for offshore wind'
The UK government along with the onshore wind easing last week announced ambitions to drastically speed up planning and consenting for offshore wind projects.
“It currently takes four or five years in order to get a project consented, we want to get that down to one year,” Lord Callanan said.
Asked how this would be done in practice, he told Recharge a review is underway to look at where regulations can be streamlined: “We will legislate if we need to, to provide central government with more powers for nationally significant infrastructure projects to make sure they are pushed through.
“We want to make sure people have the opportunity to register any objections. We need to make sure environmental concerns are taken into consideration, but we can’t have these nationally significant projects taking many years to get consented.”
The minister said the UK government also wants to reduce what he labelled “frivolous legal challenges” to projects.
Several major North Sea offshore wind developments have been subject to judicial review proceedings by campaigners after consent has been granted. Lord Callanan said: “The purpose of a judicial review is to test that a decision is taken properly, that the proper considerations were taken into effect. It shouldn’t be to question the decision itself which is a matter for the secretary of state and the proper statutory authorities.
“Increasingly there’s a suspicion that courts are intruding more into the actual substance of the decision rather than the way the decision was taken. It’s something we’re actively looking at.”
Lord Callanan took aim at ambitious plans for renewables and clean energy outlined by the UK opposition Labour party.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer this week said if it wins the next general election – due to be held by the end of 2024 – the party would aim for a fossil-free UK power system by 2030 and set up a state-controlled renewables generation business called Great British Energy.
Asked if Labour’s green plans had overshadowed those of his Conservative party, Lord Callanan told Recharge: “The history of the state running energy companies has not been good,” claiming the Conservatives’ approach of creating the right market environment for private investment in renewables had already reaped rewards in the form of the world’s second largest offshore wind sector after China and a 50GW target for wind at sea by 2030.
Lord Callanan denied that the UK government’s green ambitions were undermined by expansion plans in fossil fuel activity, including ending a ban on shale gas fracking.
“Under every scenario of our net zero target, which we remain committed to, we need gas. The question is where we get that gas from.”
“It makes much more sense for the transition if we can obtain those [gas] resources from our own supplies” than importing liquified natural gas to the UK, a far more carbon intensive process than is involved in local extraction.