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Spotlight on UK onshore wind market, Part II


ANDREW MOURANT

In the second installment of this feature, REFocus contributor Andrew Mourant conducts a one-on-one with Ecotricity's Dale Vince.

In Part I of this feature, the UK's major political parties chimed in on state of the country's onshore wind market. In this follow-up, REFocus contributor Andrew Mourant reports on the issues from the perspective of the onshore wind power developer/utility.

The hostility within government surrounding the issue of lack of support for onshore wind is well documented. Such has been the hostility to onshore that Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, the UK’s first all-renewables supplier, has abandoned the struggle to get new projects off the ground in England.  Instead he’s looking to Scotland – where the wind blows stronger and the politics are far less uncertain.

“We began changing our focus a couple of years ago — the point had come when we felt we were wasting time and money fighting for all these projects,” Vince told Renewable Energy Focus magazine. “Even after a public inquiry, Pickles would come along and overturn it (any decision in favour).
 
Recently, Ecotricity announced a link-up with global construction and development giant Skanska to build three major wind projects in Scotland. The joint venture – named Skylark — aims to put 350MW of new green energy into the planning system in its first five years. If the schemes are approved, they could supply green electricity to 200,000 homes, with the first power generated by 2018. Skanska has already built two large wind farms in its home country, Sweden.
 
Vince has set up a Scottish office in Inverness  —  500 miles from the firm’s headquarters in Stroud, Gloucestershire — where he’s pursuing ‘a fairly radical model of community engagement’. “We’re looking to fund energy independence, so that money coming out of the farms we build doesn’t just go into a community pot and get fought over, but instead funds sustainability plans,” he explained.  “We’ll be looking at needs, then investing in the hardware that makes [communities] energy-independent over time.”
 
Vince founded Ecotricity in 1995. It now powers almost 150,000 homes and businesses from its wind and sun parks. It’s a ‘not-for-dividend’ enterprise that uses profits from customers’ energy bills to fund new green energy projects.
 
During the company’ 20-year history Vince has lived through four general elections. “In the past, all parties made supportive noises (favouring renewables),” he said. “But not this time; the choice is very clear: left-right, black-white, on or off for on-shore wind.
 
“The government has quarterly opinion polls showing 70% support for renewables. That hasn’t changed throughout this parliament; they’re divorced from the statistics. It’s the opposite for fracking, yet despite that, the government are pursuing it, come what may, over the heads of local people.”
 
Should Labour govern or lead a coalition, Ecotricity will review its decision ‘not to bother’ in England. “Nothing’s forever … if the government changes, we’ll reflect that,” says Vince. He’s met Ed Miliband; found him reassuringly pro-wind; though knows nothing of the Labour leader’s kite-flying windy places audit. 
Subsidy reductions have hit on-shore hardest, Vince notes. “I think wind is most out of kilter [in terms of economics] because the technology cost isn’t as low [as solar]. It doesn’t really have the ability [to drop significantly]. Cuts in subsidies have killed small projects.”
 
In fact, those cut triggered mixed reactions. A spokeswoman for the Renewable Energy Association described it ‘a good news day’, for it proved onshore was ‘leading the race for cost-competitiveness.” However, RenewableUK warned of smaller projects ‘falling away…the very ones the government wanted to fly, so local communities could take ownership of their energy’ .
 
Vince is constantly devising ways to wrest control of energy supply from the UK’s six dominant corporate suppliers, and put it into local hands. Among his latest scheme is the Merchant Wind Power project. “We build big windmills on factory sites for people like Ford, Michelin, Sainsburys,” he said. “We take costs and risk – they buy electricity (on long term contract) from us for less than they can buy from the grid.
 
“We’re going to take that model into the small wind sector – offer smaller windmills to smaller businesses on the same basis: no cost, no risk. Small wind has been badly affected by government, and we think by deploying our own machines we can close the gap.”
 
Where might on-shore wind be in five years’ time, the fixed length of a UK parliament? “It’s easy to talk about what will happen with a Conservative government – no big on-shore wind projects,” Vince said.
And yet he thinks the sector will eventually see a resurgence. “The time will come when there won’t be any need for a feed-in tariff because of technological advances – simply that.  If Labour win, onshore wind will be back — which is a good thing.”

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Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Wind power

 

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