THE UK government is facing the prospect of a legal battle after axing £800 million of annual subsidies for new wind farms amid fears it could devastate Scotland’s green energy industry.
But it has been welcomed by anti-wind farm groups who say they have scarred Scotland’s countryside in recent years as “subsidy chasers” flock to erect turbines on hills and moorland.
UK Energy Secretary Amber Rudd unveiled proposals yesterday to close the existing subsidies payment schemes a year early for new onshore wind projects, to fulfil a Conservative election manifesto promise.
There are currently around 3,000 new onshore wind farms in the pipeline in the UK and about 70 per cent are in Scotland, prompting fears the change will have a “disproportionate” impact on the renewable energy industry north of the Border.
The First Minister said yesterday: “This decision is wrong-headed, it is perverse and it is downright outrageous. I think it severely undermines any Tory claims to be pro-business.”
She added: “This decision comes despite the UK Energy Secretary admitting on radio this very morning that onshore wind is one of the most cost-effective ways of developing renewable energy.”
Ms Sturgeon argued that the move would also send out the wrong message ahead of a conference in Paris this year aimed at getting a new global agreement on climate change.
“As for climate-change targets, cutting support for low-carbon energy is a terrible example to set to the rest of the world,” she said.
The Scottish Government wants to generate 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity from “clean” energy sources. These include wind and hydro, shifting away from gas and coal which lead to global warming from carbon dioxide emissions, as well as nuclear plants.
Niall Stuart, of industry body Scottish Renewables, warned that a legal challenge could be undertaken by energy firms after the decision went “further and faster” then expected.
He said: “If our members think this is unreasonable, if it’s disproportionate, if it’s unfairly singling out onshore wind and does not meet their expectations of developing and building their projects under renewables obligations, then I think they will consider whether or not they have grounds to challenge it in court.”
More than £800m of subsidies – which are paid for through consumer bills – helped onshore wind generate 5 per cent of the UK’s total electricity last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said.
Ms Rudd said there were enough subsidised onshore wind schemes to meet renewable energy commitments. She added: “We have a long-term plan to keep the lights on and our homes warm, power the economy with cleaner energy, and keep bills as low as possible for hard-working families.
“We want to help technologies stand on their own two feet, not encourage a reliance of public subsidies.
“So we are driving forward our commitment to end new onshore wind subsidies and give local communities the final say over any new wind farms.”
Under the plans, the “renewables obligation” scheme, through which subsidies are paid to renewable schemes, will be closed to onshore wind farms from 1 April, 2016.
There will be a grace period offered to projects that already have planning consent, a grid connection offer and acceptance and evidence that the scheme has the right to use the land.
This could allow up to 5.2 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity to go ahead – potentially leading to hundreds or even thousands more wind turbines going up in the countryside across the UK.
The move on communities having the last word on large wind farms will not affect Scotland where most of the new large scale schemes are planned.
However, the subsidy axe has been welcomed by anti-wind farm campaigners in Scotland who say many local communities affected are opposed to more development.
Graham Lang, chairman of Scotland Against Spin (SAS), even urged the government to go further.
“Ending the renewable obligation scheme will not check the runaway development of smaller wind farms eligible for feed-in-tariffs,” he said.
“These can be even more damaging for local residents, and cumulatively for landscapes, than larger wind farms. We urge Amber Rudd to finish the job she’s started today and close feed-in-tariffs at the same time.”
A European Commission progress report this week suggested the UK was one of several member states set to significantly miss its renewables targets for 2020 and would “need to assess whether their policies and tools are sufficient and effective in meeting their renewable energy objectives”.
Ian Marchant, chairman of Infinis Energy, said on behalf of the British Wind partnership the focus should be on delivering the “best deal” for the consumer.
He added: “That is why it so important that onshore wind – the most cost effective renewable – should be allowed to continue helping the UK decarbonise at least cost.
“Of course no technology should receive public support for a moment longer than is necessary, but removing that support prematurely risks future deployment expectations as well as undermining wider investor confidence in UK energy infrastructure projects.
“Not only would this potentially cost bill payers hundreds of millions more every year as onshore wind is replaced with more expensive technologies, it could prevent us from meeting our energy and climate change targets which the government has consistently said it is committed to.”
Scotland’s energy minister, Fergus Ewing, said the decision was “deeply regrettable” and would have a disproportionate impact on Scotland as around 70 per cent of onshore wind projects in the UK planning system are in the country.
“This announcement goes further than what had been previously indicated. It is not the scrapping of a ‘new’ subsidy that was promised but a reduction of an existing regime – and one under which companies and communities have already planned investment.
“Onshore wind is already the lowest cost of all low carbon options, as well the vital contribution it makes towards tackling climate change, which means it should be the last one to be scrapped, curtailed or restricted.”
And he warned: “The UK government have chosen to place at risk a huge investment pipeline, conceived in good faith by developers based on statements from the UK government.”
Kevin Coyne, the Unite union’s national officer for energy, said: “The UK faces a serious energy supply problem in the near future with the prospect of the lights going off.
“It needs to develop all sources of viable and environmentally sustainable energy, whether it is gas, nuclear, oil, renewables and coal, if that incorporates carbon capture and storage.
“Wind provided 14 per cent of the UK’s energy needs in 2014. It is an invaluable component of a balanced energy policy which we have long been advocating.
“With the closure of coal-fired power stations and with the new generation of nuclear power stations yet to come on stream, it seems misguided to end these subsidies at this time.”