How important is onshore wind energy to the UK?
How much electricity in the UK is currently generated by onshore wind turbines?
Onshore wind was the second biggest contributor to renewable electricity generation after bioenergy in 2018, representing 27.4% of renewable generation and 9.1% of all electricity generation. Electricity generation from onshore wind increased to a record 30.4 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2018. The UK’s installed capacity of onshore wind power is 13.6 gigawatts (GW). Capacity has been boosted in the last few years by higher wind speeds and the completion of new windfarms. More than 1,000 onshore wind turbines were installed in 2017 with a capacity of 2,666 MW, as developers sought to take advantage of subsidies before they were withdrawn. In 2018 there was a significant decrease in onshore wind installations from the 2017 peak, with €0.5 billion of investment and 598 MW installed. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy to generate within the UK.
Where are onshore windfarms currently located in the UK?
Onshore wind turbines are located in areas with adequate wind speeds and in exposed locations free from obstacles like trees or buildings that can interfere with turbine performance. Particularly suitable wind speeds are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)’s Renewable Energy Planning database, there were 707 operational onshore wind sites in the UK as of May 2018 – this includes sites with just a single turbine. Of the larger of these sites – those with over 50 MW of installed capacity – 77% are located in Scotland (calculated from BEIS data) and in 2016, almost half of the UK’s turnover from onshore wind activities was generated in Scotland (£1.5 billion). Whitelee is currently the UK’s largest onshore windfarm, located on Eaglesham Moor, near Glasgow. Its 215 turbines generate up to 539 MW of electricity a year.
More renewable energy from Scotland, including from onshore windfarms, will be able to reach England and Wales once the Western HVDC Link has been completed. This is a new subsea cable connection between Scotland and North Wales, which began to come online in December 2017. Drax Electric Insights reports that the new cable has already reduced the amount of electricity from Scottish windfarms ‘lost’ when constraints are put in place to avoid overloading the electricity transmission system: a sixth of Scotland’s available wind energy was lost in 2015/16 because there was insufficient cable capacity to transmit it to consumers.
How much more onshore wind is planned and where are proposed future sites located?
BEIS’s Renewable Energy Planning database shows that 119 sites had been granted planning permission for onshore wind turbines and a further 12 were under construction, as of December 2019.
The majority (approximately 60%) of sites that have received permission are located in Scotland. While a number contain a single turbine, the largest, located at Lang Kames in the Shetland Islands, is set to have 103 turbines, producing 370 MW of electricity by 2024. Of the 14 sites with a planned installed capacity of more than 50 MW, all but two are in Scotland. The majority (56%) of the 32 sites currently under construction are also located in Scotland. (All data from the Renewable Energy Planning database, May 2018.) A number of other windfarm proposals are at different stages of the planning process.
The Government gave its backing to onshore wind projects on ‘remote islands’ (such as the Outer Hebrides) in June 2018. It intends to legislate to differentiate remote island wind from other onshore windfarms so that they can compete in auctions for price support contracts, an option that David Cameron’s government withdrew from potential onshore projects in 2015. The Government has also indicated (in March 2018) that it may ease these restrictions on onshore wind subsidies in parts of Scotland and Wales. This more favourable attitude is apparently supported by the public: a YouGov poll in July 2018 showed that 69% of people would back more onshore wind turbines being built and 66% would support a change in government policy to ease restrictions where there was local support.
How are planning applications assessed?
Sites identified for planned windfarms are subject to a formal application assessment. Even if approved, not all sites continue to build stage. Since 2015 Local Planning Authorities have assessed applications for all installations, regardless of size (previously, commercial windfarm developments over 50 MW were assessed by national government). Government guidance states that applications should not be approved unless the proposed site has been identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan.
The National Planning Policy Framework aims to protect Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and areas of high national heritage value from negative impacts from windfarm developments. Additionally, most commercial-scale onshore wind turbine applications require an Environmental Impact Assessment, which assesses the potential visual impacts and changes to landscape and biodiversity that could result. The EIA can directly inform a decision to approve or reject a submitted application. Noise impacts are also assessed and considered.
See also: What are the pros and cons of onshore wind energy?