Blown Away by Fracking
By Richard Barton
With less than a year to go to the general election, the political parties are busy preparing their manifestos. One issue which is already generating significant debate relates to the future of wind farms and the relatively new practice (in the UK at least) of fracking.
Since the UK’s first commercial onshore wind farm was built in Cornwall in the early 1990’s, in excess of 4,000 turbines have been erected, spread over almost 600 projects across the country, giving a total onshore capacity of some 7,000 MW (www.renewableuk.com). In addition some 22 offshore projects have delivered in excess of 1,000 turbines, which generate roughly 3,500 MW of capacity. All of this has led to the UK becoming the world’s 6th largest producer of wind power (Windpower.net) However all this could be about to change.
The Conservative Party has said it will not subsidise new onshore wind farms if they win the 2015 general election. Energy Minister Michael Fallon said any project not granted planning permission before the election would not get funds as the UK would already have enough wind power to meet 2020 EU targets.
Under current planning legislation large on-shore wind farms (over 50MW) are treated as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) which require ‘development consent’. The applicant must carry out extensive consultation on their proposals with a number of statutory and non-statutory bodies and the wider community, however either a single inspector or a panel of three or more from the Planning Inspectorate are at the heart of the determination process. They will examine the application and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. In the future it is proposed that these powers of decision would be transferred to a local level, giving the process of determination to local Councils, even for very large scale proposals. It is also proposed that planning policies will be amended to give greater consideration to the views of residents.
The removal of subsidies, combined with the power of determination being moved to the local level could be the death knell of onshore wind farms. Several experts in the field of renewables have already spoken out, suggesting that the approach is premature. Given the level of opposition from local communities sometimes levelled at large scale infrastructure proposals, moving decision making for larger schemes to the local level will undoubtedly make securing consent more challenging. Of course the applicants would still have the right to appeal, so much would depend on amendments to policy wording, which is yet to be detailed. It is the removal of subsidies however, which have been an important incentive for developers to develop wind farms, which could provide the biggest problem for developers.
It would appear that offshore wind farms will continue to benefit from existing or even increased levels of subsidies, which makes their future look more secure.
On the face of it the explanation that there is no need for further onshore wind farms to be developed, because 2020 EU targets have been met appears plausible, but is there more to it? Is it right to stifle the delivery of a renewable source of energy because a target has been hit? Why not continue to develop the onshore sector given that the UK’s energy needs will only increase.
Perhaps that is where the energy potential of fracking comes in.
Hydraulic fracturing (to use its formal description) has been commonplace in North Sea oil and gas exploration and extraction for many years and has been used extensively in countries such as the United States. Fracking allows access to underground stores of oil and gas. Exactly how much could be available in the UK is yet to be fully understood, however initial studies which have focussed on the North West suggest that there is a plentiful supply which would help compensate for declining reserves of fossil fuels in the North Sea.
The Conservative party is clear that it supports the principle of fracking, but initial exploratory drilling has recently met with significant opposition. So what is the current planning process for fracking?
Planning permission is one of several approvals required before any activity may start on a site. The decision making process lies with the local planning authority, and permission must be sought for each stage of the process (exploration, appraisal and production). This is set out in ‘Fracking UK shale: planning permission and communities (Department of Energy and Climate Change 2014). At this stage therefore the decision making process lies at the local level, but there is potential for new planning laws to be introduced which would elevate the decision making status to a similar level currently utilised for the aforementioned large scale wind farms. If the level of opposition is such that many significant proposals for shale extraction fail to get local approval, then we could see amendments to the process to try and speed up determinations, likely by elevating them to NSIP determination level.
Interestingly recent polls suggest that if given a choice the public would rather see more on shore wind farms than fracking sites. Furthermore the other main political parties are yet to lend their support to fracking to the same extent as the Conservatives.
It may well be therefore that despite the potential removal of subsidies and the imposition of a more onerous planning process we haven’t seen the last of onshore wind farms after all. Certainly much will depend on the outcome of the general election and the planning policies utilised by the new government.