A pig feed manufacturer in England has achieved a feat that has been nearly impossible for nearly a decade, spearheading a shift in UK renewable energy policy.
Anor Farm Feeds’ rare achievement was getting permission to install a wind turbine. While the Yorkshire company could be an outlier at the moment, rising energy prices and the threat of blackouts are driving momentum to reverse a seven-year-old ban on onshore wind farms in the UK.
Pressure is building on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to ease planning restrictions as April energy bills are set to be more than three times what they were before Russia invaded Ukraine. A growing number of Conservative lawmakers, including Sunak’s predecessors, are clamoring for change, although it’s unclear when Downing Street will act.
At around a quarter the cost of wholesale electricity, onshore wind power is one of the cheapest sources of energy in the UK and expansion could help ease inflationary pressures. The onshore wind ban is also increasingly at odds with UK goals to empower local communities and tackle the climate crisis.
Tiny wind turbines like the one at Manor Farm are quick to set up and promise tangible relief as early as next winter when government subsidies on electricity bills come down. This is eroding resistance from local authorities, which have traditionally been the biggest hurdle to wind farm approval. The Manor Farm Permit is a case in point.
“This application proved that the community can accept new onshore wind turbines,” said Chris Calvert, chief executive officer of Pegasus Group, a consulting firm that helped with the project. He also sees a need to catch up with other customers, but only a few are pursuing projects. “The planning policy puts them off, which I think is a shame,” he said.
The animal feed manufacturer, based about 15 miles east of Leicester, was able to overcome the legal blockade in October for two main reasons: a turbine was already on the property before the ban and 98% of the local population supported a second. While few other sites have the same credentials, such small wind farms could sweep across England if the ban is lifted.
Given the country’s windy climate, even a single turbine can make a difference. Octopus Energy Group, which builds renewable energy plants and supplies electricity to homes, has matched thousands of applications with suitable characteristics such as wind speed and grid capacity and found enough sites to add at least 2.3 gigawatts of new capacity. That’s almost 16% of the UK’s current onshore wind fleet and enough to power over 1.8 million homes.
“Our model envisions smaller wind farms closer to people, where electrons can travel shorter distances and they can get the power cheaper,” said Zoisa North-Bond, chief executive officer of Octopus Energy Generation. “We could really speed this up.”
The company’s estimate is probably conservative since it’s based on a small 1-megawatt turbine per tower. Manor Farm’s new windmill is set to be more than four times the size. If that’s the base case, then a network of tiny wind farms could provide the electricity needs of over 7 million UK homes.
Small wind farms in England have some key advantages. Local support is easier to secure than for large disruptive mast fields and the application process can be simpler, taking as little as six months, according to industry group RenewableUK. Once approved, a windmill still takes around six months to build, meaning a rule change can have a noticeable impact within a year.
“There really is demand at the community level,” said James Robottom, RenewableUK’s head of onshore wind energy. “A change in planning will begin to build investor confidence in the industry.”
England isn’t as windy as Scotland and has a lot more people, so there isn’t as much space to build huge projects. But big developers are still eager to invest in England again. Most of the UK population lives there, so the projects don’t need to send electricity that far. This proximity lowers the cost that developers have to pay to use the power grid.
“If the ban were lifted we would be looking to build across England,” said Frank Elsworth, head of UK onshore development at Swedish utility Vattenfall AB. “It’s a real solution for this decade.”
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