The Tory approach to renewables is bad for business

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 19 July 2018 in Comment

With a new poll showing high public support for onshore wind, the UK Government's hostility to renewables looks ever more confusing

Image credit: PA

Two thirds of the British public think the UK Government should change its energy policy to stop blocking new onshore wind developments, according to a recent poll conducted by YouGov.

This, in itself, is not particularly surprising. In fact the findings are consistent with other polls and surveys carried out over the last few years.

The numbers may vary slightly, particularly depending on the way the question is asked, but the message is clear – the British public are pretty keen on renewables.

But while the headline finding – that that 66 per cent support a change in policy so that onshore wind farms can be built in places where they have local backing – may not be much of a shock, other aspects of the polling deserve more attention.

For example the poll found that, even among Conservative voters a majority back expansion of the technology, with 61 per cent saying the exclusion of onshore wind should end.

Meanwhile 65 per cent of people in rural areas were supportive of new developments.

In fact, overall, YouGov found that just 15 per cent of people would oppose the change. Again, this was consistent with previous studies.

So the surprising thing is not that a majority of the public support renewables. The surprising thing is that the UK Government does not.

Hostility towards renewables has probably always existed in the Conservative party, but it really only began to take shape in policy terms from 2015.

The Lib Dems – and particularly Ed Davey, the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – acted as a brake on Conservative impulses against green technology. In 2015 though, the Lib Dems were booted out of the coalition, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was soon abolished, and policy shifted towards an energy strategy reliant on gas and nuclear.

Put simply, the Conservative response to evicting the Lib Dems and getting full control over the levers of government was to cut support for onshore wind, while changing rules so new developments were only allowed to proceed in areas designated suitable by local authorities.

For the Scottish renewables sector, the impact was damaging – even if it took a couple of years for the effect to show. For example a 2017 industry survey, conducted by Scottish Renewables, found that businesses working in the Scottish renewable energy sector anticipated losing a sixth of their workforce within 12 months.

Of course climate change presents the most pressing reason to invest in the renewable energy sector, and its consequences are becoming ever more visible.

June saw Planet Earth hit by a series of unprecedented heatwaves. Europe, North America, and Asia all saw record temperatures. The fishing village of Quriyat, on the northeast coast of Oman, saw temperatures stay above 42.6C for 51 hours straight. It represented the highest night-time temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world.

If global temperatures rise above 2C from pre-industrial levels the effects will be catastrophic, and much else on the planet will become an irrelevance. For its proponents, that is reason enough to move to renewable energy.

But it’s not the only reason the Tory approach jars. Leaving aside the environmental argument, it’s actually very difficult to understand the approach even in pure economic terms.

Onshore wind now represents the cheapest form of new electricity generation in the UK. Meanwhile, with Scotland holding 25 per cent of total European capacity for wind energy – alongside about 10 per cent of Europe-wide capacity for wave – renewables represent a huge opportunity for growth. For the self-styled ‘party of business’, the Tories’ opposition to renewables is baffling.

And, as the YouGov poll confirms, public opinion does not justify the stance. When asked what kind of new development they would be most supportive of locally, 23 per cent chose onshore wind, followed by a new railway line, with 22 per cent support, a housing development, with 17 per cent support, or a new dual carriageway, which had 16 per cent support.

Overall the least popular new developments were a fracking site, which had just four per cent support, and a nuclear power station, with two per net backing.

The Conservative party is missing a trick, and as time goes on its apparent suspicion of renewable technology is likely to become ever more removed from public opinion as a whole. As the polling found, 75 per cent of people under 40 agreed that ministers should respond to climate change by prioritising increased investment in renewable energy.

Even in terms of cold self-interest the approach makes no sense. Forget the climate, forget concern over how the world will look in future decades if you like, current Tory policy is also not backed by public opinion. And in the world of politics, that’s not good for business.



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