When it comes to wind power, the Government evidently hopes that out of sight means out of mind. Subsidies for the onshore turbines that many regard as a blot on the landscape are to be reduced, while those for offshore wind farms are to rise. With this move, the Coalition may hope to quell the growing revolt in rural England against what David Cameron allegedly referred to as “green crap” – in particular the march of turbines across the countryside.
However, neither the aesthetics of onshore wind power nor its propensity to inspire Nimbyism in Conservative-held constituencies is really the issue. Much more important is whether this form of electricity generation is economically viable or makes a contribution to Britain’s energy security. These questions must not be ducked, as they might well be if all future wind developments are at sea.
In fact, the real reason for the transfer of subsidies has less to do with stopping onshore projects and more to do with preventing the collapse of the offshore industry. Investors had been panicked by reports that subsidy levels would fall, undermining confidence in the sector. Ministers even appeared to be contemplating the possibility of “minimal investment” in offshore wind during the next decade.
Recently, the Committee on Climate Change warned Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, that “required investment is at risk under current proposals”. Its lobbying appears to have paid off with the announcement of a higher “strike price” for offshore, balanced by a five per cent cut in subsidies for onshore wind and solar. Ironically, however, economies of scale will still make it worthwhile to build large wind farms; it will be small, community-led schemes that will become unsustainable.
Since the subsidies for offshore wind are significantly higher than for onshore turbines, it is hard to see how this is a good deal for the taxpayer, the consumer or for industry. Even though domestic prices have been pushed up (and are now to be pegged while taxes take the strain) they are still among the lowest in Europe. By contrast, energy intensive industries in Britain, such as steel making, pay some of the highest prices in the EU because, unlike their competitors, they are not exempt from the green levies.
The upshot of the green agenda, therefore, is that in pursuit of unrealistic decarbonisation targets, we are switching to an even more expensive and unreliable form of electricity generation just as the country faces a looming capacity crunch next year. Ministers often boast that Britain generates more power from offshore turbines than the rest of the world combined. But that may be because no one else wants to follow our lead.
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