It has been a momentous and controversial year for energy and the environment, culminating with a global deal to reduce carbon emissions.
Nationally, since coming to power, the Government has taken a sledgehammer to the renewable energy policy.
Freed from the “green” instincts of the Lib Dems during the Coalition, the Conservatives have slashed electricity subsidies, dished out licences for fracking and signed a deal to let foreign state power companies build a nuclear plant in Somerset.
For the landscape campaigners fighting wind and solar across the region, the row-back on incentives and changes to planning policy have been long overdue and hard-fought. For the industry, it has been tantamount to industrial sabotage.
Merlin Hyman, chief executive of Regen South West, the region’s renewable trade body, says ministers have acted like Luddites smashing the mill machinery to turn back the wheels of progress.
“In years to come this will be seen as the last attempt by the incumbent centralised fossil fuel dominated system to protect the status quo – and their profits,” he told the Western Morning News.
“It will be an attempt as fruitless as Luddites smashing up cotton mills. Clearly, 2016 will be a tough year for the 13,000 people in the South West working in renewables, but it is now just a matter of time before they become the backbone of our energy system.”
In December, the Government revealed that subsidies for small-scale solar panels were to be slashed by 64% – less than the 87% feared – to howls of protest from an industry which fears thousands of jobs are under threat.
But Christmas came much earlier this year for the anti-wind farm lobby in Devon and Cornwall, the latest figures from the Planning Inspectorate show.
For the protest groups which have fought tooth and nail to oppose the construction of turbines, Santa visited on June 18, in the shape of a ministerial statement from the Government.
Communities secretary Greg Clark said that, when determining planning applications for wind energy development, local planning authorities should only grant permission if two key criteria are met.
Firstly, the development site identified in a local or neighbourhood plan – something few if any councils have done.
Secondly, only if it can be demonstrated that the proposal has the backing of the local community – another tall order, given the opposition by many people in rural areas, particularly those living nearby.
From that date onwards, new schemes have been virtually impossible to progress and planning permissions for wind farms have ground to a shuddering halt. The key complaint when masts were being approved up and down the country was councils were powerless – even if they refused a scheme, inspectors would overrule, costing them a fortune in legal costs.
Since the tough new rules were unveiled last month, new figures reveal that just one appeal by a developer has been granted following a council refusal in six months.
This was the final act in a series of moves by the Tories after supporters in its rural heartlands made it an election issue. Successful appeals in favour of developers in Devon and Cornwall had already dropped from 75% to 27% after guidance was changed under the Coalition in 2013 – the so-called Pickles effect.
But since June, when the Government scrapped subsidies a year early and imposed the strict regulations, 20 out of 22 have been dismissed, with one turbine and one phone mast approved. That has seen a success rate drop from 75% to 5% in two years, according to figures up until December 18.
Industry experts say the Tory changes are “ideological” and will hit jobs and drive up energy bills. Opponents of wind farms have been fighting scores of local campaigns since renewable energy developers targeted the region.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in Devon calculates there are still many schemes at appeal pending a decision and potentially many more turbines to come..
Penny Mills, CPRE chairman in the county, said people affected by masts were “delighted” that the Tories have accepted the “devastating” effect of the technology on the rural landscape. But she says the year still saw “an increase in blots on the Devon landscape” with more wind turbines and solar farms being applied for, approved and constructed.
“The effect on our landscape, particularly in Torridge and West Devon, has been dramatic,” she added.
“Local communities have been devastated as schemes have been approved against their wishes. “Unfortunately, those already approved will be built and so the landscape will continue to be harmed as these turbines get built. For example, construction has now started of the Den Brook Wind Farm, at Bow/North Tawton, against the wishes of the local community who campaigned against it for many years. The quiet, rural landscape there, with its beautiful backdrop of Dartmoor, will be completely altered by this development.”
Energy Secretary Amber Rudd also announced on June 18 the decision to scrap incentives under the Renewables Obligation (RO) from April.
Ms Rudd predicted that around 250 onshore projects already in development are likely to be cancelled, meaning 2,500 turbines – many of them in Scotland – will now be mothballed.
The policy prompted Cornwall Council to abandon almost all its plans for turbines on its land, claiming it is now “virtually impossible” to develop new onshore wind projects.
Anti-wind-farm campaigners are relieved that the march of what they consider unsightly masts has been halted.
However, at least one turbine has been approved by council officers in Cornwall – a 77m tower at Blackpool Quarry, St Mewan, near St Austell.
Campaigners calculate there are 300 wind turbines either already permitted or in the planning process in Devon alone – with dozens still pending a decision or at appeal.
Regen South West has claimed the ideological “attack” would “clobber” firms in the region who have invested “in good faith”. But Mr Hyman says the march of renewable energy will be unstoppable, even without the state handouts.
“The UK is part of a global revolution, investment in decentralised clean energy now outstrips coal, oil and gas combined – and there is no going back,” he added. “Perhaps it is this very success that led to a policy backlash from the Conservative government in the second half of 2015 which has dramatically cut support for renewables whilst propping up fossil fuels with ever greater subsidies and writing blank cheques to Chinese and French investors in nuclear.”
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