Despite renewable energy targets, land-based turbines are facing planning obstacles – and those at sea face perils too
Within the past few weeks a breeze of change has been blowing across the onshore windfarm landscape as governments (north and south of the border) respond to the depth of public antipathy towards plans for wind turbines – some of them 443ft high – marching across previously unspoilt countryside.
In England it was announced last week that communities would be given a greater say over the siting of onshore wind farms and that they would also enjoy increased benefits from hosting those developments that do go ahead. Meanwhile, in Scotland, maps are to be drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage that will identify more than a quarter of the Scottish countryside as wild land that is likely to become “turbine-free”.
The drive by governments to meet targets for renewable energy sets the context for much of this debate. But as Roberta Downey, of Hogan Lovells, says, there is a fundamental tension between approving schemes to meet those targets while also trying to respond to the concerns of the communities directly affected.
As the joint announcement from the Department of Energy & Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government says: “Current planning decisions on onshore wind are not always reflecting a locally led planning system. New planning guidance … will give greater weight to landscape and visual impact concerns.”
That said, governments still want wind power where it is acceptable. That is why the thrust of the new regulations is focused on engaging local communities so that they feel more involved in the proposed projects. Whether this will work in practice remains to be seen, says Matthew White, of Herbert Smith Freehills.
Although there may be greater efforts to involve people in the practicalities of the design and setting he thinks that many people are instinctively opposed and are unlikely to be won over whatever the blandishments: “Onshore wind is pretty black and white – there is not much you can do to change the way they look,” he says In fact, in Scotland according to Jacqueline Harris, of Pinsent Masons, pre-application consultation is already required for projects that are bigger than 20 megawatts. But in practice it seems that – whatever local feeling might be – there has been a perception that the prospects of approval are better for larger projects (50 megawatts and above) when they are determined by the Scottish Government. “It has seemed easier to gain consent in Scotland than in England,” Harris says.
Nonetheless consents are becoming harder to secure. This is partly because much of the “low-lying fruit” has already been gobbled up, says her colleague Gary McGovern.
Indeed the locations that are still remaining both north and south of the border are much more challenging because opposition will be considerable and influential. Take the highly controversial proposal for a nine-turbine development on Mount Lothian, which had been submitted to Midlothian Council: this was withdrawn suddenly last month when faced by fierce local opposition.
There are other grounds for objection based on the flight paths of aircraft and the possibility of interference with radar. In Scotland (and in England) a number of wind farm developments have been unable to proceed because of objections from aviation authorities.” Often this means that onshore (and offshore) wind farms cannot be developed unless mitigation for those impacts can be found,” Harris says.
Antony Skinner – who specialises in renewables work at Ashurst – says that the change in policy will affect the investment decisions made by developers. “The more marginal sites in terms of load factor may become less attractive so that the number of applications may reduce as developers only focus on the most productive.”
Already, he says, there has been a drop in the number of proposed onshore projects due to regulatory uncertainty.
As White says, there are problems over the fivefold increase in the financial incentives for communities to accept wind farms. “In law you are not permitted to buy a consent, so the availability of this increased community benefit cannot be allowed to influence councillors in taking their planning decision.”
There is also likely to be controversy over who decides how these community benefits are spent, says Steven McNab, of Simmons & Simmons. That is why the whole concept of bribing communities with “sweeteners” to back wind farms is anathema to people such as Robert Rabinowitz, CEO of Pure Leapfrog, who believes it is better to persuade people to buy-in to onshore wind rather then crudely buying them off.
Meanwhile, prospects are looking brighter for offshore wind where, as Anthony Curnow, of Ashurst, says, the UK is currently leading the world with developments such as the London Array in the outer Thames Estuary.
As Roberta Downey says, getting planning permission for offshore takes half the time required for onshore. That said, the complexity and cost of offshore projects are much greater than those onshore and are more likely to give rise, Downey says, to subsequent construction disputes.
So are we caught, wind-wise, between the on-shore devil and the expensive deep blue sea? It certainly looks that way.
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