Record numbers of onshore wind farms have been approved for construction this year as power companies cash in on hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies.
The number of turbine projects granted planning permission has more than doubled over the last two years, according to the latest figures, prompting fears that hand-outs for energy firms are too high.
A growing public backlash against green energy levies on household bills, and the spread of wind turbines across the countryside, has led senior Tories to plot radical steps to protect the landscape and cut costs for customers.
Conservative ministers have drawn up a four-point plan to prevent the growth of wind farms and other forms of renewable energy such as solar power plants from blighting the countryside.
David Cameron used last week’s Cabinet reshuffle to promote a leading critic of wind farms, Kris Hopkins, to the post of minister responsible for planning turbine projects.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, is also said to be determined to cut household gas and electricity costs by reducing the “green levy” that adds an estimated £110 to customers’ bills.
But they are facing fierce resistance from Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are blocking attempts to reduce energy bills by withdrawing support for green schemes.
Householders have been warned that they face sharp increases in their heating bills this winter. Last week, the energy giant, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) announced it was increasing prices for customers by 8.2 per cent.
The firm’s chief executive blamed the current system of green energy subsidies, which companies add to household bills, for one third of the increase and demanded a review of the government’s environmental energy strategy.
A typical household gas and electricity bill would fall by £110 overnight if the government paid for loft insulation schemes and green energy subsidies through the tax system instead of extra charges to consumers, the firm said.
Conservatives fear they are running out of time to respond to soaring household energy costs after Ed Miliband’s popular promise to freeze household gas and electricity bills.
However, senior Liberal Democrats, including Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, are opposing any attempt to weaken support for renewable energy industry.
Latest figures from Mr Davey’s department showed that the number of new onshore wind farms and smaller turbine developments which have won planning permission is rising dramatically.
Between the beginning of January and the end of August, 188 new onshore wind farms, including large and small developments, were given permission by planning authorities, a 49 per cent increase on the same eight-month period in 2012.
It is also more than double the rate of planning permissions granted for the same period in 2011, when 83 turbine projects were approved.
At the same time the amount of electricity being generated by onshore wind farms has risen by 70 per cent since 2012.
According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, there has also been a surge in applications for new turbine sites. By the end of August, 597 applications had been received by councils across the UK, DECC results show. This was compared to 470 for the same January-August period last year, and just 203 in 2011.
The total number of applications for planning permission for new onshore wind farms during the year more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, from 365 to 820.
The trend reflects what analysts believe to be the rush to take advantage of government-backed green levies which power companies claim in exchange for developing renewable energy projects.
The Sunday Telegraph reveals today that Britain’s wind farms produced an income of £ 2 billion last year, more than half of which came from a consumer subsidy added to household bills. The “Big Six” energy companies received wind farm subsidies of more almost £900 million.
Chris Heaton-Harris, a Conservative MP, attacked the system of green subsidies and levies which was introduced by Mr Miliband when he was Energy Secretary in the last Labour government.
“If Ed Miliband is genuinely concerned about peoples’ energy bills, he should be ashamed of the system he himself constructed that allows these companies to gorge themselves on subsidies,” he said. “These figures simply prove that the current level of subsidy for onshore wind is way too high and needs to be dramatically cut.”
While Tories privately admit that Mr Miliband’s eye-catching pledge to freeze bills has struck a chord with the public, as family finances are squeezed, they are being prevented from acting by the Liberal Democrats.
When government departments were divided up by Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg during the coalition negotiations in 2010, the Lib Dems won the Energy Department. Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, is now one of the most intransigent critics of Tory efforts to limit the spread of onshore wind farms and is expected to block any attempt to cut funding for renewable energy.
However, senior Tories demanding action to tackle the impact of green levies on household energy bills are understood to have won the backing of the Chancellor.
Ministers are considering delaying the roll-out of the Energy Companies Obligation, which is used to insulate the homes of people living in fuel poverty, to help reduce their bills.
The £1.3 billion scheme, which began this year, will eventually add up to an estimated £125 to annual household energy bills as the industry recovers its costs.
Other green initiatives which would add to household bills could also be “phased” in over a longer period than currently planed, a senior source said.
The Telegraph can disclose that Conservative ministers have also developed a four-pronged plan to halt the march of wind and solar power plants across the countryside.
:: Ministers will personally intervene to block proposed wind-farm developments in the countryside if the planning system fails to protect the local landscape from harm. Conservative ministers will review appeals against planning permission being granted for new onshore wind farms for the next six months. One turbine scheme has already been blocked in the first few days of the crackdown.
:: Greg Barker, the Climate Change Minister, is writing to every council in the country warning that they must abide by new guidelines which stipulate that wind and solar power farms should not be built in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The need for renewable energy must not “trump” local communities’ desire to protect their ancient landscapes, he will say.
:: If the six-month crackdown on rogue planning decisions finds that renewable schemes are continuing to be built in inappropriate areas, Tories will seek to re-write planning laws to impose new limits on wind and solar farms.
:: More radical measures are being considered for inclusion in the next Conservative manifesto, which could include a full-scale ban on the construction of any more onshore wind farms.
Mr Barker said he was writing to every council in the country to demand that they follow the new planning rules for solar and wind farms.
He told The Sunday Telegraph he shared the concerns about environmental impact of wind-farms and solar power arrays.
“We shouldn’t have to make a choice between landscape and clean energy,” he said. “We really do need to learn the lessons of the onshore wind experience and be much more sensitive to community feeling and to landscape, particularly in areas of outstanding natural beauty or heritage value.
“So I am going to be writing again to all of the local councils to spell it out in big bold letters that protecting the landscape is an important priority for me and it shouldn’t be trumped by renewable energy.
“I am keeping this under review and if it doesn’t work I will bring forward further measures.”
A spokesman for Mr Davey’s department said the wind industry was “continuing to prosper” as a result of the government’s reforms.
“This is a thriving industry and these temporary measures won’t change that – they are just making sure the planning guidance is operating as intended,” he said.
The wind farm industry claimed that the number of new large wind farms being build was “pretty steady”.
Maf Smith, deputy chief executive of RenewableUK, the wind industry’s trade body, suggested the rise was largely due to an increasing demand for smaller turbines.
He said: “Onshore wind is a successful UK industry enjoying widespread support amongst the UK public.
“Our figures show an industry which continues to deliver new projects, and the amount of capacity being built each year is pretty steady.
“What is happening, though, is a change of emphasis, with more small businesses, farms and community groups looking to install wind energy for themselves.
“This is leading to a growth of a market for smaller turbines, with more and more people wanting to share in the benefit of wind energy.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding