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Dr Rebecca Windemer: Do we need new onshore wind farms in England?

Rebecca is a senior lecturer in environmental planning at the University of the West of England. Her teaching and research crosses the disciplines of environmental planning and energy geography. Her teaching and research interests involve the regulation of renewable energy infrastructure and how the planning system can help achieve net zero ambitions.

Between 2016-2022 only 12 planning applications for new onshore wind farms in England were approved, comprising a total of 21 turbines. This is 2.7% of the number of turbines granted permission between 2009-2015. This stark decrease in the number of wind farms granted planning permission came as a result of a policy change in 2015 and the removal of financial subsidies.

The policy change specified that:

  • a wind farm must be located in an area that has been identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan, and
  • the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing.

The wording of this policy requirement proved very challenging.

At the time of writing this blog, the UK Government is consulting on changing the planning policy for onshore wind farms in England. A key aspect of the consultation is the policy for repowering (removing existing infrastructure and replacing with new infrastructure on the same site). This is highly topical as wind farms are starting to reach the end of their 25 year planning consents. A further element of the consultation is community support.

A question that has raised been by some is do we need new onshore wind farms when we could just repower existing sites?

In answering this question I draw upon my research to explain why repowering is not as straight forward as it first seems and thus why we need to consider new sites as well as repowering. Through doing so I also highlight the importance of community engagement and benefits at both for new and existing sites.

Not all sites will be suitable for repowering

My research investigated what is happening to the oldest wind farms in the UK. This involved exploring repowering applications and speaking to communities who have lived with wind farms for 20/25 years.

I found that repowering can create significant benefits, particularly in terms of increased energy generation and the subsequent increase in energy security, but also in terms of improved benefits for the environment and local communities.

However, it may not be possible for all sites to repower. Sites may have changed over the lifetime of the existing scheme. This may include additional built development or changes in land designations. Also, technology has changed so new turbines are much larger and may not be suitable for existing sites.

Additionally, my research identified that while many communities have benefitted from their local wind farm, this is not the case for all communities. Therefore, it is important that policy allows the development of new as well as repowered sites, so that wind farms can be built in suitable locations where they have support.

Community engagement and benefits are key

For both new and repowered sites considering the local community is key. While the current policy requirement for community backing has proved difficult, there is a need to ensure that communities are fully involved in the design of a scheme and receive meaningful community benefits.

My research identified that in some locations community benefit funds (a sum of money paid to the local community to spend on community projects) have provided significant benefits. However, such funds are not always what is most useful to a community. There should thus be options for other forms of community benefit. e.g. for communities to partly own a wind farm.

So what is needed from policy?

As the UK Government consults on the onshore wind policy, I think there are three central requirements:

  1. A Removal of restrictions for new onshore wind farms: The 2015 policy requirements that are currently placed upon new onshore wind sites need to be removed in order to facilitate development.

  2. More detailed policy /guidance for repowering: My research found that local authority planners had faced difficulties in assessing repowering applications and thus needed clearer guidance.

  3. A focus on community benefit and engagement: The planning system should ensure that high quality community engagement in new and repowered wind farms is achieved. There should also be consideration of new forms of community benefit including shared ownership. There is also a need for support for communities developing their own wind projects.

Rebecca will also be at a special lunchtime webinar on end-of-life considerations for renewable energy on 24 April 2023. Sign up here

Read more about Rebecca's research on our Planning Research Matters hub. 

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