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UK renewable Contracts for Difference – now only for offshore wind?

The UK’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) regime for renewable subsidies was one of the principal pillars of the Electricity Market Reform programme put in place by the 2010-2015 Coalition Government.  In one way or another, the CfD regime aimed to provide revenue stability for most renewable technologies in projects of more than 5 MW, with consumers sharing in the upside at times when power prices exceed the guaranteed “strike price” set in a competitive allocation process.

Before the UK General Election of May 2015, it was also expected that auctions would follow a regular annual rhythm – or possibly occur more than once a year for some technologies. But things have changed a lot in the last seven months in the world of CfDs – and they continue to change.

  • The Conservative Party, victorious in May 2015, had campaigned on a manifesto promise of “no new subsidies for onshore wind”, which they have been quick to implement, and which appears to include the exclusion of onshore wind (except perhaps on Scottish islands) from future CfD auctions.
  • On 11 February 2016, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, told Parliament: “We don’t have plans at the moment for a large-scale solar contract [for difference]“.
  • The day before, her Department announced “an independent review into the feasibility and practicality of tidal lagoon energy in the UK” – appearing to cast more than a little doubt over the prospects of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, with which the Department had previously been said to be negotiating CfD support (tidal lagoon projects, like nuclear ones, fall outside the scope of the competitive CfD allocation framework).
  • The news that the European Commission has doubts about the compatibility with EU state aid rules of the proposed CfD for the conversion of a third unit at the Drax coal-fired power station to burning biomass perhaps makes it unlikely that there will be many, or any, more CfDs awarded for this technology.
  • Almost a year after the results of the first (delayed) CfD auction were announced, there is no sign as yet of Government gearing up for a second auction any time soon – merely a promise that there will be funding for three more auctions before mid-2020.

To be fair, so far, nothing has been said to suggest that Energy from Waste with CHP, Hydro (up to 50 MW), Landfill Gas, Sewage Gas, Wave, Tidal Stream, Advanced Conversion Technologies, Anaerobic Digestion, Biomass with CHP or Geothermal will not be eligible if and when the second auction finally takes place, but the fact remains that for the foreseeable future, offshore wind appears likely to dwarf all the other CfD-eligible technologies.

In clearing the original CfD rules for state aid purposes, the European Commission noted, as apparently relevant facts, that “All generators producing electricity from renewable energy sources will be able to bid for a CfD on non-discriminatory basis (albeit that some less established technologies will initially benefit from allocated budgets in order to promote their further development).“, and that “in the absence of aid renewable energy technologies will not be deployed at the required scale and pace, as without the aid such projects would not be financially viable.”  This was in keeping with the emphasis in the relevant State Aid Guidelines that an “auctioning or competitive bidding process open to all generators producing electricity from renewable energy sources…should normally ensure that subsidies are reduced to a minimum“, but admitting that “given the different stage of technological development of renewable energy technologies“, technology specific tenders may be allowed “on the basis of the longer-term potential of a given new and innovative technology, the need to achieve diversification; network constraints and grid stability and system (integration) costs“.

The statutory framework for CfD auctions allows the Secretary of State enormous flexibility to determine, at very short notice and in documents which are not subject either to Parliamentary approval or any statutory consultation requirement (the “budget notices” and “allocation frameworks”), which technologies will be eligible for support in a given auction.  However, it must be arguable that a decision effectively to exclude technologies as significant (and competitive) as onshore wind and solar from the allocation process could amount to a change in the CfD rules which should itself be notified to the Commission for state aid approval.  And it is not entirely clear that such exclusions could be – or at any rate have been – justified on the grounds specified in the Guidelines as a basis for technology specific tenders.

A cynic or conspiracy theorist might suspect that the lack of urgency in proceeding to a second CfD auction may not be unrelated to the UK Government’s reluctance to put itself – in advance of a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU – in the position of appearing to have to ask the Commission’s permission (in the form of a state aid clearance for alterations to the CfD rules) not to offer CfDs to technologies that Ministers do not want to subsidise.  But cynics and conspiracy theorists are often wrong.  The Government is perhaps more likely to be just taking its time to consider the future of CfDs more broadly.  For example, in the 11 February 2016 Parliamentary exchanges referred to above, Ministers confirmed that they are looking “very closely” at the seductively labelled and highly fashionable concept of “subsidy-free CfDs” (which means different things to different people, but for one interesting suggestion, see this blog post by Professor Michael Grubb of UCL).

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UK renewable Contracts for Difference – now only for offshore wind?

UK onshore wind subsidies: not dead yet

A vote in the House of Lords on 21 October 2015 has, for the moment at least, derailed the Government’s proposals to prevent new onshore wind farms commissioned after 31 March 2016 from being subsidised under the Renewables Obligation (RO).

Readers of our earlier posts on this subject (see here and here) will recall that in June 2015 Government said that its proposals would form part of the current Energy Bill.  In July, “grace period” arrangements were promised for those projects with planning permission, grid connection agreements and land rights by 18 June 2015.  On 8 October, Government amendments to the Bill, setting out the details of grace period relief, were  published.  They covered a somewhat broader range of cases than just the “planning / grid / land rights” one.  After a Committee debate on 14 October 2015 in which Lord Wallace of Tankerness and others identified a range of scenarios where they felt projects would, unfairly, not benefit from the grace period amendments, Lord Bourne, for the Government, withdrew the amendments to consider them further.

Before the debate at Report stage on 21 October, Government re-tabled its amendments, virtually unchanged, and Opposition Peers tabled a number of others, including one that simply removed clause 66 (the early closure provision) from the Bill altogether.  This amendment was passed, by 242 votes to 190.

What is going on, and what (so far as we can tell) happens next?

  • Ministers have suggested that in voting to remove clause 66, Peers were flouting the “Salisbury convention” – i.e. the principle that the unelected House should not thwart measures that have appeared in the election manifesto of an incoming Government.  The Opposition response to this is that the Conservatives’ General Election pledge to “end any new public subsidy” for onshore wind was one thing (which might, for example, equate to removal of onshore wind from the list of technologies eligible to compete for Contracts for Difference (CfDs)); but bringing forward the closure of the RO (an existing subsidy) is another thing altogether.

 

  • The Opposition stress that they are not opposing the phasing out of onshore wind subsidies per se – rather, they object to what they see as the Government’s failure to provide details of the proposed grace period arrangements soon enough for them to be properly scrutinised and amended, and to the fact they do not cover various categories of projects whose exclusion from the RO seems to them to be unfair.  It is also alleged that the average savings to Bill payers (30p per household annually) from early closure are outweighed by the lost investments on the part of the industry (over £300 million).

 

  • Some of the “hard luck cases” cited might not have achieved RO accreditation even under the existing, pre-18 June position on RO closure.  Others that it is said may be unfairly treated by the 8 October amendments include projects where a local authority decided to grant planning permission before 18 June but the mitigation arrangements under a “section 106” (England and Wales) or “section 75” (Scotland) agreement were not yet signed off; cases where the developer gave the local planning authority longer than the statutory minimum before treating its silence as a “deemed refusal” of planning permission and challenging it; and cases where a project essentially had a grid connection agreement for some time prior to 18 June but temporarily lost it before that date.

 

  • Lord Bourne may win a prize for Parliamentary understatement when he said, towards the end of proceedings: “The debate has exhibited a clear difference of position in relation to onshore wind.”

 

  • For the moment, the Bill does not provide for early closure of the RO to new onshore wind projects.

 

  • In order to carry out its policy, the Government will have to muster more support at Third Reading in the Lords, or reintroduce the early closure provision in the Commons, where its MPs are likely to be easier to whip.  In the latter case, the provision would then have to return to the Lords for consideration, and could go through more than one round of “ping pong” between the two Houses – with the wind industry (or at least many projects) in suspense in the meantime.

 

  • Unless the Prime Minister really intends to create enough new Peers to guarantee passage through the Lords of the RO closure provisions in the form the Government wants (as appeared to be suggested in connection with the parallel Lords rebellion on cutting tax credits for working families), it looks as if Government needs to secure agreement on a package of grace period amendments that Opposition Peers are content to accept.

 

  • The Parliament Act 1911 enables the Government effectively to bypass the House of Lords in certain circumstances.  But it is unlikely to be of any use to the Government on this occasion, since its timescales would not allow the Bill to be enacted until well after 31 March 2016 – and possibly not (or only a few weeks) before the general RO closure date of 31 March 2017.

Finally, it is worth noting that the vote on clause 66 was one of two Government defeats during the Report stage debate on the Bill.  Peers also voted in an Opposition amendment that would change the basis on which the UK’s carbon budgets are set under the Climate Change Act 2008 – probably with the effect of making them harder to meet.  This more technical and, on the face of it, less politically exciting change is in part a reaction to the Government’s confirmation that it will not be setting a decarbonisation target for the power sector (whose emissions are said not to be counted in carbon budget setting because they fall within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme).  In the longer term, it may – if it survives – have even more far-reaching effects than those of the removal of clause 66.

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UK onshore wind subsidies: not dead yet

Grace periods for early closure of Renewables Obligation support for onshore wind

On 8 October 2015, the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) set out its detailed proposals for mitigating the impact of the proposed early closure of the Renewables Obligation (RO) to new onshore wind projects from 1 April 2016. The provisions now set out in a series of proposed amendments to the relevant part of the Energy Bill, which are to be debated by the House of Lords on 14 October 2015, go a little beyond what DECC first put forward at the start of its period of “engagement” with the industry at the start of July 2015.

The original grace period proposal was relatively simple, and based on the “significant investment grace period” for >5MW solar PV projects. An onshore project would be able to achieve RO accreditation if it commissioned and applied for accreditation after 31 March 2016 but before 1 April in 2017, provided that, as at 18 June 2015 (the date of DECC’s announcement about the proposed early closure) it had planning permission, an accepted offer of connection to the transmission or distribution network, and sufficient rights over the land where it was to be situated – e.g. in the form of a lease, option, agreement for lease or exclusivity agreement.

The proposals set out in the 8 October amendments are more generous, but also more complex. They consist primarily of the insertion of a new run of sections in the RO provisions of the Electricity Act 1989 and their effect is summarised in the table below.

Section of Act (as it would be amended) Date wind farm / relevant additional capacity  is accredited Applicable grace period conditions to be satisfied in order to obtain accreditation
32LD On or before 31 March 2016 No need for grace period
32LE Between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017 Grid and radar delay condition – i.e. that:

In respect of either grid connection or radar mitigation works relating to the wind farm / additional capacity on or before the date when Ofgem decided to accredit it, Ofgem has received from the operator:

(a) evidence of an agreement to carry out the works in respect of the wind farm / additional capacity;

(b) document from the network operator / radar agreement counterparty estimating completion on or before the primary date (see below);

(c) letter from the network operator / radar agreement counterparty confirming that the works were completed later than planned, and that this was not due to any breach by the wind farm developer; and

(d) declaration by the operator that to the best of its knowledge and belief, the wind farm / additional capacity would have been commissioned / formed part of the wind farm before the primary date if the works had been completed by that date.

For the purposes of section 32LE, the primary date is 31 March 2016.

32LF On or before 31 March 2017 Approved development condition – i.e. that the accreditation application is accompanied by the following as regards planning, grid connection and land rights.

Planning

One of the following:

(a) evidence that planning permission (or s. 36 consent / development consent under the Planning Act 2008) was granted on or before 18 June 2015;

(b) evidence that planning permission (or s. 36 consent / development consent under the Planning Act 2008) was refused on or before 18 June 2015 but granted after that date following an appeal or judicial review;

(c) evidence that an application for planning permission was made to the local planning authority on or before 18 June 2015; the authority failed to determine or decline to determine application, or refer it to Ministers, within the statutory period; the application was not referred to Ministers; and the application was granted after 18 June 2015 following an appeal; or

(d) a declaration that to the best of the operator’s knowledge and belief, planning permission is not required for the wind farm / additional capacity,

and that any conditions as to the time for commencement of development in the relevant planning permission have been complied with.

Grid connection

One of the following:

(a) a copy of an offer from a licensed network operator made on or before 18 June 2015 to carry out grid works in relation to the wind farm / additional capacity and evidence that the offer was accepted on or before that date; or

(b) a declaration by the operator that to the best of its knowledge and belief no grid works are required to commission the wind farm / additional capacity.

Land rights

A declaration that to the best of the operator’s knowledge and belief a developer of the wind farm or additional capacity or a person connected with it in within the meaning of s. 1122 Corporation Tax Act 2010:

(a) was an owner or lessee of the land where the wind farm / additional capacity is to be situated;

(b) had entered into an agreement to lease that land;

(c) had an option to purchase or lease that land; or

(d) was a party to an agreement by the owner or lessee of the land not to permit any person other than those identified in the agreement to construct a wind farm there.

32LG Between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018

 

Approved development condition

and

Grid and radar delay condition – noting that:

Documentary requirements are as described in relation to section 32LE, but

For the purposes of section 32LG, the primary date is 31 March 2017.

32LH Between 1 April 2017 and 31 December 2017

 

Approved development condition

and

Investment freezing condition – i.e. that the accreditation application is accompanied by the following documents:

(a) a declaration from the operator that, to the best of its knowledge and belief, as at 1 May 2016:

(i) it required funding from a recognised lender (a provider of debt finance with an investment grade credit rating) before the wind farm / additional capacity could be commissioned / added;

(ii) the recognised lender was not prepared to provide such funding until enactment of the Energy Act 2016 because of uncertainty about whether it would be enacted / how it would be worded if enacted; and

(iii) the wind farm / additional capacity would have been commissioned / added on or before 31 March 2017 if the funding had been provided before enactment of that Act; and

(b) a letter or other document dated on or before 1 May 2016 from a recognised lender confirming that it was not prepared to provide funding for the wind farm / additional capacity until enactment of the Energy Act 2016.

32LI Between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2018 Approved development condition

and

Investment freezing condition

and

Grid and radar delay condition – noting that:

Documentary requirements are as described in relation to section 32LE, but

For the purposes of section 32LI, the primary date is 31 December 2017.

It seems likely that the Government’s proposed amendments will be adopted. It remains to be seen whether subsequent debates as the Energy Bill passes through the remaining stages of its passage through the House of Lords, or through the House of Commons, will result in the addition of any further grace period criteria or the tweaking of those already covered. For now, the following points may be noted:

  • The grace period criteria based around a combination of planning, grid and land rights proposed in July have been broadened as regards planning permission.  In particular, what is now called the “approved development condition” allows grace period status to be claimed not just by projects that had obtained planning permission by 18 June 2015, but also by those who had their planning applications refused on or before that date, but have managed to obtain planning permission through an appeal or judicial review process subsequently.  The value of a further extension, relating to cases which local authorities have failed to handle according to statutory timetables, may be more limited, because as currently drafted it appears only to benefit cases that have not been referred to Ministers for determination.
  • The introduction of provisions acknowledging that some projects may be delayed because lenders are unwilling to commit to finance them before the legislation has received Royal Assent is clearly a welcome addition to the package of mitigation for early closure.  However, note that the “investment freezing condition” in which this is set out does not function as an independent justification for not commissioning by 31 March 2016.  Rather, it allows those projects that can already justify an extension of the period within which they can achieve accreditation under the approved development condition to extend for an additional 9 months.
  • In July 2015 DECC had already indicated that projects which benefited from planning, grid and land rights on 18 June 2015 could bring themselves within the scope of the existing grace period provisions on grid and radar delay – thereby potentially enabling them to apply for accreditation as late as 31 March 2018 where such delay had occurred.  The proposed amendments to the Energy Bill disapply the grace period provisions of the Renewables Obligation Closure Order 2014 from onshore wind projects, but reproduce the effect of its provisions on grid and radar delay as part of their own suite of grace period criteria.
  • The revised impact assessment produced alongside the proposed amendments does not appear to suggest that any more capacity will be accredited as a result of the expansion of the grace period criteria (the numbers in all the key tables are the same as in the version of the impact assessment published in September, apparently on the basis of the original proposals).  However, the accompanying DECC press release states that “around 2.9 GW” of onshore wind capacity could be eligible for the grace periods.

The package of mitigation proposed by the amendments is appreciably more generous than what was suggested by DECC in July, but there are limits to that generosity.  For example, the amendments have not simply followed the model established by the >5MW solar PV RO grace period and allowed the planning criterion within the approved development criterion to be satisfied by any project that had applied for planning permission by 18 July 2015.  However, it is noticeable that the DECC policy paper of 8 October 2015 invites “onshore wind developers to tell us about any of their projects affected by our proposals. In particular, we are interested in hearing from developers with projects that are currently in the planning system, but which have not yet secured planning consent, and to receive information and evidence relating to:

  • the stage that such projects have reached in the planning process, anticipated final planning decision dates, and expenditure incurred on projects as at the date of the Secretary of State’s announcement
  • project timetables and anticipated dates for securing a grid connection offer and acceptance; and
  • the prospects of such projects being in a position to accredit under the RO by 31 March 2017 and expected final investment decision dates.”

It is therefore possible that Government is leaving the door open (or, at least, slightly ajar) to a revised ‘approved development condition’ that more closely resembles the model established by the >5MW solar PV RO grace period (and is more favourable to the industry than that currently tabled in the Energy Bill).

Conversely, it will be interesting to see whether some of the new concepts introduced by the proposed ‘grace period’ conditions for onshore wind, such as the investment freezing condition, will find any place in DECC’s eagerly awaited response to its consultation on the proposed early closure of the RO to ≤5MW solar PV projects.

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Grace periods for early closure of Renewables Obligation support for onshore wind

The Politics of Onshore Wind

The new Conservative Government has made curbing the growth of onshore wind one of its short-term priorities.  On 18 June 2015, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) confirmed the Government’s intention to implement the Conservatives’ 2015 General Election manifesto promise to “end new public subsidies for onshore wind” by “legislating to close the Renewables Obligation across Great Britain to new onshore wind generating stations from 1 April 2016”.  The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, made a further, oral statement to Parliament on 22 June 2015, giving further details of her thinking and the potential impacts of the change.

DECC has stated that “up to 5.2GW of onshore wind capacity could be eligible for grace periods which the Government is minded to offer to projects that already have planning consent, a grid connection offer and acceptance, as well as evidence of land rights”.  But it has also calculated that some 7GW of new onshore wind capacity (250 projects, 2,500 turbines) are likely not to be commissioned as a result of the early closure.  The future treatment of onshore wind under the separate Contracts for Difference and Feed-in Tariffs regimes remains to be clarified.

Industry has not been slow in condemning the chilling effect which the Government’s announcement will have on many projects.  But what can they actually do about it?

The Renewables Obligation (RO) is scheduled to be closed to new projects on 31 March 2017 in any event (subject to some grace period arrangements) as part of the transition to the Contracts for Difference regime being the primary subsidy vehicle for large-scale renewables projects.  The early closure for onshore wind echoes the treatment of >5MW solar projects, to which the RO was closed on 31 March 2015, subject to one-year grace periods both for projects already holding planning consent, grid connection offer and acceptance and evidence of land rights, and for projects which only failed to commission in time to be accredited by 31 March 2015 because of grid delays.

The early closure of the RO to >5MW solar was effected by an “RO closure order”: a piece of secondary legislation which Ministers were given powers to make (subject to Parliamentary approval) under the Energy Act 2013.  Ministers could, of course, use the same method in the case of onshore wind, but the DECC announcement states that the closure of the RO for onshore wind will be achieved by primary legislation – i.e. a Parliamentary Bill.  This means that there will be no statutory obligation to consult on the proposals before they are put to Parliament.  It also means that they will receive vastly more Parliamentary scrutiny: when a draft order is put before Parliament, it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and it is seldom debated for more than an hour by a handful of MPs or Peers.  In the vast majority of cases, the draft is approved.  By contrast, any provision that is put before Parliament as part of a Bill is capable of being amended or made the subject of counter-proposals.  So the industry can fight back by lobbying MPs and Peers, and the Government’s Commons majority may or may not be strong enough to make it impossible for those seeking a less harsh outcome for onshore wind projects to make some headway.

Before the 18 June announcement, there was much talk of possible legal challenges to the expected ending of onshore wind subsidies.  However, DECC’s decision to use primary legislation makes judicial review a less promising avenue for the industry.  A recent judgment in a case relating to changes to solar subsidies has made it clear that in certain circumstances a Government decision to consult on proposed subsidy cuts can be challenged in itself (even if there is no subsequent decision to implement the proposal).  The same case has clarified the range of circumstances in which projects which have not yet achieved accreditation under a subsidy scheme can nevertheless still make a claim for damages as a result of a change in subsidies.  However, if the next thing that Government does is to introduce provisions to implement the closure of the RO to onshore wind in its forthcoming Energy Bill, it is doubtful whether that action could be judicially reviewed.  Unlike a decision to make a piece of secondary legislation, or to consult on doing so, which are executive acts, a Minister’s decision to put forward a Bill is something that he or she does in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament.  As such, it may well be considered by the Courts to fall within the category of “proceedings in Parliament” which are not judicially reviewable.  One possible trump card for the industry might be to find a way of characterising the proposed legislation as contrary to EU law: no doubt some opponents of onshore wind (inside and outside Parliament) would relish that.

The industry – using the language of judicial review – has attacked the early closure as “irrational”.   Amber Rudd told Parliament: “We could end up with more onshore wind projects than we can afford – which would lead to either higher bills for consumers, or other renewable technologies, such as offshore wind, losing out on support.  We need to continue investing in less mature technologies so that they realise their promise, just as onshore wind has done.”  The references to issues of affordability and the impact that the amount of subsidy budget (the “Levy Control Framework”) that wind would consume might have on support for other types of renewable generation echo the arguments for closing the RO early to >5MW solar, where a claim for judicial review was firmly dismissed.  But it is hard to avoid the feeling that political, as well as economic considerations are in play.  And although DECC has stated that “we now have enough subsidised projects in the pipeline to meet our renewable energy commitments”, it is interesting to note that a few days earlier, the European Commission published a status update on EU Member States’ prospects of meeting their 2020 renewables deployment targets that showed the UK as being one of a number of Member States that need to “assess whether their policies and tools are sufficient and effective in meeting their renewable energy objectives“.

The subsidy change is explicitly linked to the parallel commitment to “give local communities the final say over any new wind farms”, fleshed out in a statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the same day.  But whilst the subsidy changes would apply throughout Great Britain (the content of the RO being for DECC Ministers to determine), the planning regime is more of a patchwork.  Hitherto, broadly speaking, onshore wind projects up to 50MW were consented by local planning authorities (everywhere), while applications to develop projects of 50MW or above fell to be determined by DECC Ministers in England and Wales and Scottish Ministers in Scotland.  It is now proposed that all wind farm applications in England will be decided locally, and that planning permission should only be granted if “the development site is in an area identified for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan”.  This gives English local authorities who do not wish to see wind farms in their area much greater ability to refuse them planning permission.  In Wales, under the St David’s Day Agreement, there are moves to devolve consents for projects up to 350MW to Welsh Ministers.  But before that happens, a number of old consent applications for >50MW onshore wind projects in Wales that have attracted considerable opposition and been the subject of a public inquiry are likely to be decided by DECC Ministers.  In Scotland, where >50MW consents are already devolved, no changes made by Ministers in Whitehall in relation to consenting will have an effect, but the subsidy changes will probably have a much greater negative impact on future projects throughout Great Britain than any decisions taken by planning authorities or Ministers on consents.

It could be said that all this is simply democracy at work.  There is a broad strand of Conservative opinion that is anti-onshore wind.  The Conservative Party sent a clear signal of its intentions in regard to onshore wind in its manifesto.  It won the election.  Of course, it didn’t do very well in Scotland, but while most of the big onshore wind farms are in Scotland, the money to support them under the RO mostly comes from England, where the largest number of consumers (who pay for subsidies in their electricity bills) live.  No doubt there will be lively debates on the provisions of the current Scotland Bill that proposes (very limited) further devolution of energy matters to the Scottish Government, as well as on the provisions of the forthcoming Energy Bill on closure of the RO to onshore wind.  But it hardly needs saying that however politically exciting the process may be, it does not provide a stable background for investment in what is apparently still the cheapest form of renewable generation – and one which new research suggests could also be made a lot quieter and more efficient, thus removing some of the stronger potential non-aesthetic objections to it.

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The Politics of Onshore Wind