Politicians to ponder the winds of change for energy

onshore wind

Take a road trip to Scotland, Cornwall, East Anglia or through the major roads of France and the chances are you will see wind turbines on land.

In many coastal locations, especially off east of Great Britain, multiple wind turbines can be seen out to sea, too.

And it is these – multiplied sufficiently – that Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged last week would power the United Kingdom’s energy needs by 2030.

Raising the 30 gigawatts capacity target for 2030 to 40 gigawatts is, apparently, part of the Government’s 10-point plan for a green revolution. The rest of the plan will be announced by the end of the year.

Critics were quick to point out that his previous pledge, on biodiversity, was not quite what it seemed. A promise to protect 30% of the UK’s land for biodiversity was actually to protect it for beauty. For walkers, tourists and sheep, not wildlife.

It is great for politicians to be able to promise policy, but another thing to be around long enough to see it through. Before 2010, David Cameron said he would protect the polar bear, but did little to advance environmental causes once elected.

At least Mr Johnson appears to have seen the green light. In 2013 he said nobody seriously believed wind farms were the answer to our energy needs. He described them as “white satanic mills” and “moaning seagull slicers”.

On his latest promise, some have pointed out that wind power isn’t consistent enough to sustain our power needs on its own. Or unless there is infrastructure in place to store much of it until it is needed, in the form of hydrogen or battery storage. Will he provide the finance for that infrastructure, asked the Financial Times writer?

In addition, the cheapest form of renewable energy is onshore wind, not offshore. The latter happens to be nearly twice as expensive per megawatt. Offshore wind will surely endanger wildlife more than just the birds the RSPB are worried about, too. Think of all the sealife that surely must be disturbed to lay cables and plant the huge steel frames. Onshore, there are surely some industrial sites that could be converted.

Which brings us to an interesting listing for an “adjournment debate” in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

This will discuss the Local Electricity Bill, which has cross-party support. Part of a campaign by Power for People, this seeks to give local communities the ability to set up companies to generate renewable energy. This is through wind or solar. The bill proposes to empower local communities to sell renewable energy directly to local people, creating jobs. Currently, there are too many restrictions and barriers in place to achieve this.

If a sports hall or school had solar panels, it could then sell its energy directly to the community, rather than to the grid. At present, housing estates with solar panels cannot sell directly to the public. All this could change.

This might also encourage building companies – and local authority planning departments – to push for renewable energy installations on new buildings.

Many adverts for environmental products now carry images of wind farms or solar panels. It doesn’t matter how tenuous those links are, or which part of environmentalism the product or story is really talking about. It is an easy association to make.

By not referencing onshore wind in his pledge, Mr Johnson skirts round the age-old perception that communities will object to huge wind turbines strewn across the countryside. Yet are they any worse than the windmills of centuries past? Or the telegraph poles to aid communication, from the 20th century?

Wednesday night will be interesting – to see who turns up to support the bill, or whether anyone opposes it. Adjournment debates allow a backbencher to raise a question and have it answered by a minister. They might not result in a change of law directly, but they raise awareness of issues.

The fact this one by a campaign group has been given Parliamentary air time might just signal the winds of political change towards onshore energy. Many MPs have already pledged to support the Local Electricity Bill, should it ever be put before Parliament. The response from the Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng will tell us much on the Government’s attitude overall to renewable energy.