Onshore wind and the UK general election


May 15, 2017

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It’s springtime in the UK and I spend every morning engaged in my favourite seasonal pursuit: dressing for days that can be both beautifully warm and completely freezing. I enjoy the risk of knowing that, rain or shine, I’ll be stuck with these clothes all day.

This also helps to distract me from the larger choices those of us in the UK have to make each spring. In the last three years, we have had a general election in 2015, the Brexit referendum in 2016, and now another general election on 8 June. Deep joy!

This year’s general election is arguably the least dramatic of the three. Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party are on track to trounce Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, even though May’s election strategy is simply saying “strong and stable” a lot. It’s her catchy follow-up to “Brexit means Brexit”.

This expected victory for the Conservatives is largely enabled by Labour’s move to the far left. It has also opened the way for the Conservatives to look at ‘leftist’ energy policies that would see the party meddling in free markets. May said she would cap energy bills, which would save £100 a year each for 17million families.

This is very similar to a policy proposed by Labour in 2015 that was derided as Marxist by the Conservatives, and may be watered down by May’s fellow MPs. But it does give a microcosm of the political shifts that are happening in the UK post-Brexit.

The idea of making energy bills cheaper should be a vote-winner, but we do not see why interfering with the free market via a price cap is the smartest way to do it. The Conservatives could get a similar effect by giving more support for onshore wind.

This is an idea that Keith Anderson, CEO at Scottish Power Renewables, discussed at the All Energy conference in Glasgow last week. He said the price cap would only address the symptoms and not the causes of the issues facing the energy industry.

If the government wants to reduce electricity prices then it should open up the market to more competition from onshore wind, not make the sector a persona non grata.

“We appear to have a UK government that is allergic to onshore wind and we don’t really know why and they aren’t very good at explaining their reasons,” he said. This follows lobbying from SSE that the new government should back onshore wind.

If the Conservatives are re-elected as we expect then this could simply mean that it is business as usual for the hostile approach to onshore wind that it has adopted for the last two years.

But we hope May and her team will take the opportunity to back onshore wind in the national interest. For one, the British public likes onshore wind more than nuclear or shale gas, and so supporting the sector could be a vote-winner.

Onshore wind is also the cheapest form of new electricity generation in the UK. If it is able to compete on an equal footing against other energy sources, it should help to reduce energy bills. Backing the wind sector can help May achieve her aims.

There should be political benefits too. The wane of the UK Independence Party after the Brexit referendum is set to deliver more voters to the Conservatives. This could mean she wants to keep happy incomers from a party that has been very anti-wind.

But, in our view, backing onshore wind could help May. It would quash the idea that her party is now UKIP Lite. In fact, supporting a growing sector like wind will help to support the businesses that the UK needs to make a success of Brexit, and will help the UK to reduce its reliance on electricity imported from mainland Europe.

And what about the conservative media? Newspapers like The Daily Mail have spent years pushing a narrative that renewables are pushing up power prices, regardless of the economics.

In fact, it is far less of a factor than the rising cost of overseas fossil fuels. Wind could be part of a narrative that the UK is, to coin a phrase, taking back control of energy production. Or perhaps this is too optimistic – like my springtime wardrobe choices often are.

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