• 262 UK projects await planning permission
• Renewable energy target looks increasingly remote
- The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008
Britain's wind power industry is facing a double blow of lengthy planning delays and rapidly rising construction costs in a crisis that threatens to sink the government's climate-change goals.
Dozens of projects are being held up by planning inquiries, with the average length of time taken to win permission being 15 to 20 months in England and far longer in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the bulk of the schemes are being developed.
There are 262 different projects representing seven gigawatts stuck in the planning stages. And the rate of approvals is slowing despite government promises, according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).
It said that the start of a third inquiry into one project in Norfolk that has already been delayed for seven years showed that the government has not cured the problem despite introducing the Planning Act to speed up the process.
Meanwhile Centrica, owner of British Gas and one of the most powerful energy utilities, said a 250-megawatt scheme off the Lincolnshire coast was hanging in the balance because turbine manufacturers and other suppliers had raised their prices so high they were jeopardising the economics of the scheme.
With Britain committed to producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 to meet European Union targets, the government would be blown off course unless it intervened more robustly, said the BWEA.
"The government does not want the political problems of undermining local democracy by taking control out of the hands of local councillors," said Charles Anglin, director of communications at the BWEA. "But if it fails to act it is just storing up more difficult problems further down the road when it gives the go-ahead to coal or expensive gas projects instead."
To meet the 15% target, the BWEA estimates that Britain needs more than 30GW of wind capacity. "We think you can get 20GW offshore, which means you need 10-12GW onshore, and yet so far we have only got 2.5GW," Anglin said.
"We are aware that the planning system does need to be quicker and there are other barriers to projects," said a department of energy and climate change spokesman. "That is why we are going to unveil a renewable energy strategy with the next steps to meeting our goals."
The planning problem is highlighted by the battle waged by Ecotricity at Shipdham in Norfolk over a wind farm application submitted in December 2001. The company has won two planning inquiries only to find the final decision challenged in the high court by two local residents claiming potential noise problems.
The Planning Act applies only to schemes in England - and then only those over 50MW. "Eighty to 90% of the schemes in England are under 50MW anyway so the Planning Act does virtually nothing," Anglin said.
Offshore operators are also struggling because of the mounting costs that have already chased Shell and BP off to the US.
The cost of Centrica's 250MW Lincs wind farm off Skegness has increased from £2bn to £3bn a GW. "We are committed to building wind farms," said a company spokesman, "but we have got to get the costs down to an economic level."