Conservatives Suggest More Curbs for Wind Farms on Land in U.K.

  • May’s election manifesto goes beyond previous constraints
  • Ruling party’s focus would shift toward boosting oil and gas

Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out new wind farms on land in England if her Conservative party wins the general election next month, tightening restrictions on the technology that’s spreading rapidly.

“We do not believe that more large-scale onshore wind power is right for England,” the Conservatives wrote in their manifesto released on Thursday. Instead, May’s government would support the oil and gas industry to find “new life and unlock future opportunities.”

The remarks go beyond the current Conservative government’s position of holding back subsidies for new onshore wind farms, which rural voters backing the party see as a blight on the landscape. The document setting out policies for May’s administration also is silent about solar energy and other forms of renewables, though it retains support for offshore wind farms and turbines in locations far from the public eye like remote islands in Scotland.

“I’d interpret this has a hardening of onshore wind policy for large-scale projects outside the Scottish islands -- but it’s not unexpected,” said Victoria Cuming, head of policy analysis in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London.

Polls suggest May’s Conservatives are on track to win a landslide against the Labour opposition in the election scheduled for June 8. May took office almost a year ago when David Cameron stepped aside when voters backed leaving the European Union.

The party’s remarks about wind conflict with its other ambition of holding down energy prices. Wind turbines are now generating electricity at a price rivaling the cheapest traditional forms of energy -- and in the U.K. much cheaper than coal and nuclear power, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The document omitted reference to nuclear power, something that was central to the current government’s energy policy. Cameron pushed for and May gave final approval to the 18 billion pound ($23 billion) Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in Somerset, England, developed by Electricite de France SA. That project was to be the first of a series of reactors to replace Britain’s aging fleet, though it’s looking increasingly expensive against declining costs for natural gas and wind power, both onshore and at sea.

“The lack of any mention of nuclear energy is telling: it’s clear May doesn’t want to be associated with a beleaguered industry at a time when alternatives like wind and solar are getting ever cheaper,” said John Sauven, Greenpeace U.K. executive director.

Dozens of wind power projects in the U.K. have come under fire from local communities, where voters say the machines obstruct views and cause too much noise. Lobbying has led to many of projects being canceled, even some off the coast.

Cameron government rolled back subsidies for onshore wind, promising in its 2015 manifesto that it would “halt the spread of subsidized onshore wind farms.” With wind starting to compete at market power prices, May needed to go a step further to ensure that more wind farms don’t sprout up.

Instead, the Conservatives will focus on traditional forms of energy, especially preserving output from the North Sea. Production is in decline in the U.K. as old fields deplete and the cost to pump exceeds those where deposits are easier to reach, like in the U.S. and Middle East.

Offshore wind will remain a key part of U.K. energy policy. While wind energy in the sea is more expensive than on land, costs are rapidly coming down as turbines get bigger, and the U.K. has installed more turbines at sea than any other country.

The Labour party, the main opposition, is also focusing on keeping energy prices low, proposing an “emergency price cap” for consumers in its manifesto. It will aim for 60 percent of the U.K.’s energy is from renewable sources by 2030.

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