Unleashing The Potential of Onshore Wind: Insights from the UK’s first onshore wind conference

By Paul Noonan, Content and Insight Director

As a home-grown, home-blown power source that is now nine times cheaper than gas, terrestrial wind power could transform our energy security and affordability and pave a faster path to net zero. Yet with the UK needing to double its onshore wind capacity to remain on course for net zero by 2030 and just two turbines installed in the whole of England last year, we risk being blown off-course for decarbonisation. And the government has been criticised for rowing back on plans to ease stringent planning restrictions amidst fierce resistance from rural MPs and local groups.

I recently attended the UK’s first ever conference on onshore wind uniting leading lights from government, industry and charities to discuss how we could unleash the potential of onshore wind without damaging local environments or alienating communities. The stellar speaker line-up included the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Net Zero, the Chairman of the Net Zero Committee and representatives from Energy UK, the Local Government Association, The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Nature Conservancy and the Centre for Sustainable Energy. They revealed how democratisation and localisation, holistic ‘whole system’ planning and transparent, reliable data could finally break the deadlock and detoxify onshore wind. Here were three themes that emerged.

Democratisation and localisation, not compensation

Democratising and localising wind farm development is essential so that wind farms benefit local people and places as well the planet. Communities cannot be ‘bought off’ with compensation from developers but want to be given a genuine say and a real stake in wind farm development. This means giving communities real influence over planning decisions and an opportunity to share in the benefits of projects. Community workshops could be established asking local people to list their favourite views so that wind farms are carefully sited to avoid impeding their enjoyment of nature.

Public tenders for wind projects must focus not only on cost but on creating local content and supply chains so that wind farms create jobs and opportunities for their neighbours. Communities should also be helped to make energy savings through local wind farms and the chance to profit from peer-to-peer energy markets or community-run wind schemes. One developer even gave local communities equity stakes in their neighbouring wind farm.

Transparent decision-making through smart data

Innovations such as data analytics and digital modelling could create more transparent, democratic wind farm development. Developers could give local community and environmental groups virtual tours of proposed sites for wind farms digitally modelling the impact on everything from popular views to bird migration routes. This would enable collaborative planning decisions between communities and developers based on transparent, accurate data.

We could create multi-layered digital maps combining engineering, wildlife, land-use and population data to ensure windfarms are optimally positioned for minimal impact on communities and biodiversity. And a national land-use database could map the best sites for wind farms based on everything from wind to topography data to give each local authority a well-informed series of options for communities to consider. Crucially, transparent methodologies for measuring environmental impact such as the Nature Conservancy’s Site Wind Right tool could ensure spatial planning for wind farms minimises or mitigates environmental damage.

Holistic ‘whole system’ infrastructure planning

A disjointed, point-to-point model of development where each wind farm has to make its own grid interconnection means that power systems are not evolving in sync with renewables. We need to design electric and renewable grids holistically as a joined-up ecosystem designed to intersect around the most cost-effective way to bring clean energy to the masses.

Multi-layered digital maps modelling future power systems and wind farms could be merged with population data to ensure transmission lines and wind farms are designed to intersect and connect with future population centres. In this way, connected data from multiple sources could create more collaborative, joined-up renewable and electric infrastructure.

Mapping the way forward:

The Net Zero Committee says the UK needs to double the installed capacity of onshore wind by 2030 to make net zero affordable and achieve decarbonisation. Yet the omens are not looking good, with the pipeline of wind projects drying up under an effective 10-year moratorium on construction. Only 11% of local authorities have even identified possible sites for new construction because of confusion over where and how to build in a way that achieves democratic consent. What emerged from this event is that transparent, reliable smart data is the key to building bridges between wind developers and local communities so that wind farms can peacefully coexist with nature and their human neighbours.

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