Residents will be able to stop construction of windfarms under tough new rules that could seriously restrict the growth of onshore wind power generation.
New guidance is expected to tell councils that local people’s concerns should take precedence over the need for renewable energy, and give more weight to the impact of turbines on the landscape and heritage.
The changes are part of a package of measures that also significantly increase the amount of money communities will receive for agreeing to host windfarms nearby, with householders set to get hundreds of pounds off energy bills.
The Liberal Democrat energy secretary, Ed Davey, insisted that the government remained committed to “appropriately sited onshore wind” as part of a diverse, low-carbon and secure energy mix.
But a Downing Street source said: “The prime minister feels that it is very important that local voters are taken into account when it comes to windfarms and that is why new legislation will be brought forward, so that if people don’t want windfarms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.”
One scheme in which householders are to be paid at least £100 a year for living near turbines owned by a windfarm developer is already under way. RES is pioneering the “local energy discount schemes”, which are part of a wider move to give communities benefits from having energy generation located near their homes.
The government wants more companies to offer similar schemes, and on Thursday will recommend that wind operators give communities a minimum of £5,000 per megawatt of capacity of their turbines each year, to be spent on local projects such as community centres or sports facilities, or bill discounts. This could amount to £100,000 a year from an average windfarm, or £400 off energy bills. But this will not be mandatory, and no record is kept of whether current recommendations of giving back £1,000 per MW are followed by wind developers.
Previous schemes, such as one at Delabole in Cornwall operated by the windfarm company Good Energy, required customers to switch their electricity supplier to the windfarm operator to take advantage of the discounts. However, switching suppliers does not guarantee a net reduction in bills. RES is the first to offer discounts on all electricity bills, no matter which supplier customers use.
Davey hailed the new system as pioneering and promised many more would follow.
He said: “We know two-thirds of people support the growth of onshore wind. But far too often, host communities have seen the windfarms but not the windfall. I am pleased to see RES pioneering this innovative scheme. Providing local communities with a discount on their energy bills no matter their supplier is exactly the type of initiative we are keen to encourage as part of a closer relationship between energy generators and local communities.”
The Conservative junior energy minister, Michael Fallon, insisted the government remained committed to wind power but indicated the change would most likely mean a shift away from inland turbines.
Asked if there would be more wind power overall, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There will be more. There will be more wind offshore. There will be some more wind onshore but only where they are appropriately sited and have the support of the local community.”
Developers would have to be more transparent in consulting local people, Fallon said, saying some people had felt hoodwinked by misleading mock-up photographs and awkwardly timed public meetings.
He said: “I think the change is to a better balance, frankly. I think people did feel, in certain parts of England, that they were under siege.”
Polling consistently shows that the public supports onshore wind. Two polls last year found 60% and 66% approval for the technology, for example. But a vocal minority is adamantly opposed and the UK Independence party has made opposition to wind energy a central plank of its pitch to voters – putting pressure on the Conservatives to follow suit.
Davey’s plans to increase the amount operators offer to locals follows promises by the coalition to offer incentives in areas where energy is generated, and was seen as an attempt to reassure Liberal Democrat supporters that the coalition was still committed to green power, despite whipping MPs to vote on Tuesday against a proposal to enshrine in the energy bill a target to decarbonise electricity generation by 2030, and vetoing an EU-wide target for renewable energy generation for 2030.
Both moves angered green campaigners and many businesses, who said the environmental credentials of the coalition had been severely damaged, and investors were being scared off by the coalition’s seeming ambivalence on clean energy and tackling climate change.
The government is also keen to extend community benefits to areas where shale gas drilling is proposed, as a way of encouraging local people to allow the development to go ahead.
RES said that in a pilot scheme at its proposed windfarm in Bryn Llywelyn in Wales last year, three-quarters of people were interested in taking part. Now people living in the immediate vicinity of all its new windfarms will be offered the deal.
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