While the name of the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) suggests it is a charity dedicated to promoting low-carbon electricity, it appears to spend most of its time campaigning against onshore wind.
When it was founded in 2004, with the TV personality Noel Edmonds as its chair, the organisation was clear it wanted to fight against the “grotesque political push” for onshore renewable energy in the UK.
It styles itself on its website as “a registered charity promoting sustainable development for the benefit of the public by means of energy conservation and the use of renewable energy”. However, many in the energy sector believe the charity to be full of anti-wind lobbyists.
As onshore wind expanded at the beginning of the century, many people felt affronted by what they saw as “eyesores”. It was something many grassroots Conservative party members were angry about, and articles in the Daily Mail and Telegraph frequently complained about a “plague” of windfarms. Some conservationists prefer other forms of renewable energy to onshore wind, which is feared to deplete biodiversity in some areas.
The REF was on hand to help with the campaign against onshore renewables, providing research and quotes to the rightwing press.
But at the time, others, including the Guardian, questioned the motives of this group. In 2008, the REF had what it described as a “dialogue” with the Charity Commission over whether it was violating its charitable status by being too political in its campaigning. The Charity Commission said it assessed the complaint relating to the REF’s campaigning activities and determined there was no evidence that it was not charitable, but also provided guidance about how to achieve its objectives as an organisation.
The REF has strong links to a group accused of climate science scepticism, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, started by the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, who has denied global heating is a problem.
Prof Michael Kelly, a trustee of the REF also has a position on the board of the GWPF. John Constable, an adviser to the GWPF, has been quoted as an REF spokesperson and was previously its director of policy and research. Constable answered the Guardian’s questions for this article on behalf of the REF.
Since the first onshore wind farm was built in Cornwall in 1991, local groups have formed to fight against the construction of turbines in their area. By 2004, when the REF formed, there were many of these groups. Articles based on the REF’s findings appeared in rightwing papers, helping to sway public opinion against renewable energy. MPs also used briefings from the REF to lobby the government.
This seemed to bear fruit. Although in 2011, what was then the Department of Energy and Climate Change said there was a need for onshore wind and that it was a cheap and effective source of renewable energy, the then prime minister David Cameron began to listen to his backbenchers about their distaste for it. In 2015, he said he wanted to rid the countryside of the “unsightly” structures.
He did just that. Onshore wind was officially blocked from bidding for financial support available to other forms of renewable energy in 2016, leading to a 94% decline in the number of new projects. It has become very difficult to secure planning permission for renewables, with figures from RenewableUK showing that there are approximately 7,000MW worth of onshore schemes waiting for planning permission.
While the REF has been relatively quiet in recent years, growing pressure on the government to support wind energy to help solve the energy crisis seems to have led to it becoming more active again.
In recent weeks, the charity has provided anti-onshore wind research to the Telegraph and Daily Mail. Colin Davie, a trustee of the REF, has appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to oppose onshore wind.
Opposition to wind energy has been building in parliament, too. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, last week emphasised that he supported offshore wind, and made no mention of onshore. He is understood to believe that the renewable energy source is unpopular among Conservative MPs. Government sources have briefed that he would prefer to press on with a nuclear energy scheme, aiming for a quarter of the UK’s energy to be supplied by nuclear by 2050.
This seems to be out of tune with the public’s thinking. Recent polling for Politico found that 72% of people would support new windfarms in their local area, 52% more permits for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and just 38% nuclear power stations in their area.
Constable, on behalf of the REF, said: “Our data is often used in planning debates, but we neither make planning applications nor create local opposition groups, so cannot be said to ‘start’ such discussions.”
Some Conservative MPs have supported expanding onshore wind. The Thirsk and Malton MP, Kevin Hollinrake, said that now was “the right time” to develop onshore energy “where there is local support”.
He continued: “I welcome the government’s decision to hold a new auction for onshore wind and solar. Public opinion has shifted decisively in favour of renewable energy in recent years, with CEN [Conservative Environment Network] polling showing that 74% of Conservative voters back onshore wind.”
Environmental campaigners have also been pushing for onshore wind expansion. A Greenpeace UK spokesperson said: “It’s a no-brainer that we should build more onshore wind. It’s the country’s cheapest energy source, one of the quickest to get up and running, and is supported by 80% of the public. Boris Johnson himself has had to rethink his former opposition to wind power and is now considering speeding up the deployment of onshore turbines. With huge public concern about our dependence on fossil fuel imports and skyrocketing bills, any politician actively campaigning against the UK’s cheapest source of homegrown energy has some serious explaining to do to their constituents.”
But onshore wind expansion will be unpopular with many Conservatives, including those in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which says it accepts the fundamental facts of the climate emergency and the need to reduce emissions, but has been campaigning for more oil exploration, nuclear power and fracking as well as arguing against green subsidies and expansion of renewables.
Constable added that the REF had “no blanket policy” on renewables – but that the charity did not see them as a large part of the net zero strategy. He added: “Each proposal must be judged on its own merits, and providing that local environmental concerns offer no obstacle, niche applications may be suitable, as they may be for all renewables.”
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