A massive expansion of the UK’s wind power capacity could reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel imports, the business secretary has said, as the government scrambles to find alternative energy sources amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has laid bare Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and left countries searching for energy sources that are cheaper and don’t line Putin’s pocket. While Britain draws just 4% of its natural gas from Russia, the price we pay is influenced by prices in Europe, which receives 40% of its gas through Russia. Already recent spikes in wholesale gas prices could push British domestic energy bills above £3,000 per year from October, market-watchers warn.
Additionally, even purchasing 4% of our gas from Russia means handing Putin £6.3 million each day, or £2.3 billion across 2022, according to calculations from think tank the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to unveil a new energy strategy by the end of the month, outlining how the UK can meet its energy needs without Russian gas in both the short and long term.
While some Tory backbenchers have urged the government to lift the moratorium on fracking and pursue further North Sea drilling to unlock Britain’s own supplies of natural gas, statements and social media postings by Johnson and his ministers suggest that the government favours a dramatic expansion of the country’s renewable and nuclear capacity instead.
Under plans announced last year, all of Britain’s electricity should come from clean energy sources, including nuclear and renewables, by 2035. The government is now considering moving that date forward.
Wind farms, including the onshore turbines that have been controversial within the Tory party, are being discussed on Whitehall not as means of reaching net zero but as a matter of national security, sources report.
Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS), tweeted last week: “This is no longer about tackling climate change or reaching net-zero targets. Ensuring the UK’s clean energy independence is a matter of national security. Putin can set the price of gas, but he can’t directly control the price of renewables and nuclear we generate in the UK.”
To smooth the construction of new wind farms, the government will likely shake up planning rules, which were tightened by David Cameron to let local communities easily veto onshore wind developments. While Boris Johnson reversed a Tory policy that prevented onshore wind farms from competing for government subsidies in 2020, the planning barriers for onshore installations are still high, particularly in England.
And opposition to onshore wind farms among Conservative MPs and party members seems to be melting.
Kevin Hollinrake, Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton, said: “England’s planning system has blocked nearly all new onshore wind developments in the past five years, despite this being the cheapest source of new electricity generation. Reforming these rules, while ensuring communities still get a meaningful say, will spur investment in homegrown clean energy and accelerate our transition away from expensive fossil fuels.”
Renewables giant Octopus says a fast rollout of local onshore wind farms, accelerated by new planning procedures, could eliminate Britain’s use of Russian gas imports within two years.
The UK currently has around 14GW of onshore wind capacity installed or 11,000 wind turbines. Zoisa North-Bond, head of the renewables arm of energy supplier Octopus, said an additional 9.6GW or 3,000 more local wind turbines would be required to end our dependence on Russian gas imports—a target that is “totally achievable.”
“In the last year alone, at Octopus Energy we’ve had 1,500 communities proactively reach out to ask us to build local wind turbines in their communities,” she said.
Opposition to onshore wind farms fades when communities feel they are in control of the development and benefiting from it, she added. “If people can look out the window and see the turbine turning, have that level of knowledge and local control and know that they can get cheaper energy because of it, they are much more likely to embrace them.”
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