Is it fair to blame councils for the lowest ever approval of wind energy?

I sat, spluttering swearwords screen-wards at the horror before me: a dataset underpinning my #BigEnergyDebate article for The Guardian had not only morphed into a pastel-coloured spreadsheet fit for Microsoft’s determined efforts to simplify existence; it had miraculously shrunk in size by 45%. 3,000 renewable energy planning applications shouldn’t disappear without explanation1.

This reminded me of the frustration I felt with almost every local council and community project I developed and delivered for central government. Goal posts and the laws of physics (or at least community and sustainable energy sectors) moved with the speed and logic of my cat Kiki.

Deadlines, processes, funding allocations: everything was moveable when a senior Government officer or politician stuck their oar in. Round pegs were now expected to fit perfectly designed square holes. Despite mine and others’ best efforts, the round pegs were jabbed forcefully through, followed by futile project evaluations. Lesser beings would not get away with such flippant design alterations.

Local councils’ refusal is a symptom: the causes of a halving of wind approval rates runs deeper

Whilst my article helped inspire Green Tinking, the title wasn’t my first choice2. Some councils make the right decisions, but others’ councillors are succumbing to their vocal voters, driving forwards their own agenda or kowtowing to the Tories’ top-brass view of onshore wind.

Greenest to meanest

I and many others might like to lay the blame at the feet of councillors who have blocked wind farm applications, but it’s not that simple. There are other, more cloak and dagger factors playing a role.

The slashing of planning guidance to the meaningless mediocrity the NPPF represents has blindfolded local councils. They no longer have a rulebook to judge applications. Instead, more and more will look for inspiration from Eric Pickles’ shocking record of refusal. Last season’s fashion was visual impact, but now objectors’ weapon is the nearest listed building citing historical harm.

Austerity cuts have reduced local councils capacity to spend time on planning applications; and overstretched or removed sustainability officers, who previously had informed and educated their colleagues and councillors on the merits of wind energy.

We, or those who don’t vote in local elections, are also to blame. With greater local turnout, local politicians would not need to be scared of vocal locals’ voting power or negative publicity. Nor would they so willingly flaunt their constituents’ opinions.

The First Division of Windy local councils

Carrying on the theme of my last blog post, I’d planned to create a premier league of sustainable energy statistics, allowing easy comparison between local council areas.

Until I’ve heard from DECC or their newly appointed consultants Eunomia, the premier league will have to wait. For now, using the data2 I used in the Guardian article, I’ve created the First Division: a list of the top twenty windy councils’ key stats.

Footnotes and a final nod to data

The First Division of windy councils were selected based on them all having over 100MW of onshore wind proposed in their area. Each was assigned a score based on the approved MW per 100km2, then multiplied by the population density (as dwellings diminish the potential resource).

  1. The data underpinning my article’s analysis of approval rates is from The UK Renewable Energy Planning Database. On accessing it in January 2015, the number of unique records had dropped from when I’d last accessed it from 7,459 to 4,109. I have since found the database only records installations over 1MW; covering most wind farm applications requiring planning permission.
  2. My chosen title was “Why do planning approval rates for wind power no longer match public opinion” (67% of people favour onshore wind).
  3. I downloaded an extract of the old Renewable Energy Planning Database in November 2013. I carried out my analysis and uploaded this alongside the complete raw dataset here: http://goo.gl/VcdyUA

One thought on “Is it fair to blame councils for the lowest ever approval of wind energy?

  1. Hi Alan, I get that it can look undemocratic to be oopespd to the planning process. But I’d flag up two big issues by way of trying to show you that I’m not actually trying to undermine democracy.The first is that the planning process for wind energy just doesn’t work. The planning decisions for all other forms of generation are made by the government and not by local councils -there’s very good reason for that local councillors and the local planning process are unable to properly reflect the necessary balance between national need and local issues.Wind is the only generating technology [of any scale] that is decided through the local planning process, the process that otherwise gets used to decide house extensions and similar small local issues. Wind energy finds itself in this unique position by accident. Something called the section 36 process captures all planning applications for generators above 50 MW and gives the decision to the government. Nuclear, coal, oil and gas generators just don’t exist below 50 MW so section 36 catches them successfully, but 50 MW is a big wind farm the exception rather than the rule. So wind energy is alone in this planning idiosyncrasy. When did the public ever get a say on nukes and the like? Never.The second thing that I would highlight, based on 15 years of putting wind energy applications into the local planning process, is that there is nothing Democratic about that process at all. The decisions that local councils eventually make, if they make one at all, very rarely, if ever, reflect the opinions and feelings of the majority of local people. Ask any planner and and they will tell you that they only hear from people that are unhappy about something. The silent majority has no voice or representation in the local planning process. Its the loudest voices that are heard and hold sway in this process. If you’ve seen it at close hand it’s hard to imagine a process less democratic than the one that wind energy finds itself in.Coming on to the subject of the NIMBY stick (nice turn of phrase BTW) I agree with you; simply being concerned about what happens in your backyard does not make you an NIMBY. What’s required to make that a fair description of someone is a degree of selfishness even hypocrisy. I use the term to refer to people that want to enjoy the benefits of the modern world, roads, supermarkets, airports and power on demand of course but are not willing to shoulder their part of the impact. Until recently for example, most of the UK’s generators have been up north’ along comes wind energy and suddenly people down south’ who’ve been happy to have power and happy for others to live with the impact of that find themselves being asked to shoulder their share of the burden. And they don’t want to, for all sorts of cooked up reasons.With regards offshore you say so what if it costs more, power companies should build them anyway’ do you want to pay twice as much for your energy? I doubt very much that you do that’s what offshore costs, twice as much as onshore that’s the impact of what you’re suggesting. it’s not just a few quid more’.You say that wind turbines are more efficient offshore, this is not true. I think you mean they produce more power, something we refer to as having a bigger capacity factor and in theory they do, perhaps 30% greater than onshore. But in practice it’s not being delivered because of the problems of accessing wind turbines offshore when they are broken. Weather restrictions and the like mean that capacity factors for offshore so far have been equal at best (and worse in some cases) than typical onshore turbines. Not a great result for double the cost.I honestly don’t think that turbines ruin the land, as you say; and the vast (silent) majority in this country feels the same way. In the last 20 years every single opinion poll into wind energy, no matter where it’s been conducted nor who conducted by (or when) both before and after a wind farm is built shows that roughly 8 out of 10 of us support the idea of wind energy in our backyards and 1 is oopespd.The other 1 doesn’t know. That’s the most amazing consistency. Groups, for, against and neutral to wind energy have all had a go and they all get the same result (roughly).Cheers.

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