The UK is set to lift its controversial ban of onshore wind projects from government support, in a major u-turn by the ruling Conservative Party over a policy that sent new turbine installation figures plunging.

The UK’s newly-installed energy secretary Alok Sharma announced that onshore wind and solar will be allowed to compete for government-backed contracts alongside other renewable technologies under proposals for the next round of auctions in 2021, which is set to also feature floating offshore wind (see panel at foot).

The Conservative government of former Prime Minister David Cameron caused uproar in 2015 when onshore turbines and PV were excluded from contract-for-difference (CfD) auction rounds that have since been dominated by offshore wind.

The five-year exclusion saw onshore wind installations plunge to 626MW in 2019 from 2.7GW in 2017, the last year in which projects were eligible under old support arrangements. Last year planners in England received just one new onshore wind application and approved a paltry three new turbines, although the situation was healthier in Scotland, where the bulk of new development is likely to take place.

The new auction “will allow cheap renewable sources like onshore wind and solar to compete for contracts which enable new projects to be financed”, for the first time in the five years since the ban, said industry body RenewableUK.

“It is expected that the auction would deliver new capacity at the kind of low prices seen last year in a similar auction for offshore wind, which secured contracts at below the current wholesale price of electricity,” added the industry group, referring to the last round in late-2019 that saw offshore projects win with a record low £39.65/MWh ($48.8/MWh).

“A new auction will allow the pipeline of shovel-ready onshore wind projects – those that have already gone through the planning system and secured consent – to compete for contracts to provide new renewable generation capacity. It is vital that the UK secures new power sources to meet net zero and avoid an energy gap as coal power ends in 2024.”

Sharma, who in February succeeded wind-sceptic Andrea Leadsom as energy secretary, said that the imperative of meeting the UK’s net-zero emissions goal for 2050 means onshore projects will be reintroduced to support mechanisms “in a way that works for everyone, listening to local communities and giving them an effective voice in decisions that affect them”.

No English onshore wind project can proceed without the consent of the local community.

Sharma's announcement on CfD inclusion came with a significant nod on planning rules to the mainly English Conservative supporters who the ban was meant to mollify in the first place, and makes it by default clear that the majority of new onshore wind farms will be built in Scotland and Wales, where wind resources are good and devolved governments supportive.

Communities will have “a definitive say on whether projects are allowed to proceed. It will remain the case that no English onshore wind project can proceed without the consent of the local community”, said the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS).

Victory for campaigners

The return of onshore wind from the policy cold marks a major victory for campaigners who have argued that excluding the cheapest source of new zero-carbon power makes no sense in the context of the net-zero goal.

The limited amount of projects able to proceed in the merchant market or with a corporate power deal would have been too few and far between to make a decisive contribution, critics of the policy argued.

The exclusion of onshore wind was the root of a legal challenge by developer Banks Renewables that is still pending and delayed the previous round of CfDs, but is now presumably neutralised by the policy shift.

The move also removes a potential major source of embarrassment for the UK as it prepares to host the COP26 UN climate summit in Scotland later this year, with the prospect of onshore wind turbines being banned on the doorstep of the conference despite robust support from the devolved Scottish government and, according to polls, the majority of the British population.

RenewableUK CEO Hugh McNeal said: “The government is pressing ahead with action to meet our net zero emissions target quickly and at lowest cost to consumers and businesses. Backing cheap renewables is a clear example of the practical action to tackle climate change that the public is demanding, and this will speed up the transition to a net zero economy.

“As one of the UK’s cheapest power sources, new onshore wind projects will be a huge boost for jobs and investment in local economies across the UK.”

UK's proposals for 2021 CFD round

The UK government has opened a consultation over two potential scenarios for its fourth renewable support round.

Pot 1, established technologies onshore wind (>5MW), solar PV(>5MW), energy from waste with CHP, hydro (>5MW and <50MW), landfill gas, sewage gas.

Pot 2, less established technologies: ACT, AD (>5MW), dedicated biomass with CHP, floating offshore wind, geothermal, offshore wind, remote island wind (>5MW), tidal stream, wave.

Or alternatively

Pot 1, established technologies onshore wind (>5MW), solar PV (>5MW), energy from waste with CHP, hydro (>5MW and <50MW), landfill gas, sewage gas.

Pot 2, less established technologies: ACT, AD (>5MW), dedicated biomass with CHP, floating offshore wind, geothermal, remote island wind (>5MW), tidal stream, wave.

A new Pot 3: offshore wind.