renewable energy

Right for England? Setting the record straight on public support for onshore wind

New polling finds Conservative MPs are out of step with their constituents’ support for onshore wind

While national polling shows strong and growing support for onshore wind, the Government has suggested that wind projects often fail to win public support – particularly in England, where opposition is often assumed to be highest. On this basis, since 2015, the Government has prevented onshore wind from accessing the long-term price guarantee contracts available to other technologies, and has erected unique planning barriers in England. Despite Government efforts to drive clean growth, new onshore wind capacity is consequently set to reduce dramatically next year – as the current pipeline of legacy projects dries up.

New polling commissioned by 10:10 Climate Action suggests that the Conservative MPs who first called for these blocks to be put in place are now out of step with their constituents’ opinion on the issue. This suggests it is time for MPs to get behind onshore wind as a key part of the low-carbon future, particularly as the Government indicates it could move toward a more supportive position on the technology.

What does the polling tell us?

The polling was conducted across the 79 mostly English constituencies of Conservative MPs who signed a public letter to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012, which called for cuts in government support for onshore wind.

While one might expect opposition to wind to be highest in these constituencies, the polling shows that three quarters of these MPs’ constituents actually back the technology. Perhaps surprisingly, 73% of respondents would also be happy to live within five miles of turbines.

These figures are consistent with the Government’s own statistics – which show that 76% of the British public now support the use of onshore wind. They are further backed up by polling commissioned by 10:10 Climate Action at the end of 2017, which indicates that 70% of people living in the south of England, excluding London, would be happy to host local wind projects – slightly higher than levels of support for local turbines in Scotland.

Nine out of ten constituents of the MPs who signed the letter opposing wind are unaware of the fact that the Government is blocking onshore wind – and only one in five would support a block on turbines.

These findings are significant in light of the fact that onshore wind is currently under a double lock in England – first because projects cannot access long-term price guarantee contracts, and second because planning barriers introduced in 2015 have led to an almost total cessation in applications for new wind projects. Analysis of the Government’s renewable energy planning database shows a 94% drop in new applications for wind since 2015 – covering everything from single turbines to larger projects.

As the basis for these planning blocks is an assumption that communities in England do not want local projects, this new evidence raises further questions as to why the blocks are still in place – particularly when onshore wind has been shown to be popular in the very places Conservative MPs fear it is not.

What does this mean for MPs?

The 2012 letter to David Cameron was signed by MPs over six years ago. Since then, the context has shifted dramatically. Most significantly, turbine costs have tumbled – with the result that onshore wind is now our cheapest source of new-build electricity. Widely accepted modelling by Baringa shows that some new onshore wind contracts would be agreed at a price lower than the wholesale cost of electricity – meaning projects could be classed as ‘subsidy-free’ and pay back millions to the government over their lifetimes.

Controlling the cost of energy bills for consumers is a priority issue for MPs, as is driving forward clean growth and tackling climate change – with dozens of Conservative MPs recently signing a letter calling for the Prime Minister to back the introduction of a new net zero emission target for 2050. As the cheapest source of clean energy, onshore wind should be at the heart of furthering this agenda – and MPs should be seizing such opportunities as the first steps in moving towards zero emissions over the coming 30 years.

Conservative MPs are also aware of the fact that they will need to perform better among younger voters to regain their majority at the next election. Bright Blue polling has found that climate change is the top issue 18-28 year olds want to hear politicians discussing more, and the second top issue for under 40s. Overall, Conservative voters have been shown by Bright Blue to favour onshore wind over gas, nuclear and coal, and 59% of them support onshore wind provided it receives no subsidy – a statistic that is increasingly significant in light of rapidly falling costs.

This new polling, together with onshore wind’s well-evidenced popularity among the British public on both the right and the left, tells MPs that it is time for them to get behind wind power. Blocking it risks being left on the wrong side of their own constituents – particularly the younger voters they will seek to win over in the next election.

Onshore wind is a hugely popular source of energy – even in the places where some MPs fear local communities do not want it. In light of this, blocking our cheapest source of clean power alongside government efforts to rapidly decarbonise our energy system looks increasingly untenable. Surely Conservative MPs now owe it to their electors to assure Ministers they are ready to see a change in the way the wind is blowing.

Ellie Roberts is the Campaign Manager at 10:10 Climate Action, a UK based charity that brings people together to take positive, practical action on climate change.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Blowing in the wind: are kites the next big step for renewable power?

To most people in Britain, kites are probably things of a childhood pastime – perhaps conjuring up memories of hours spent on less-than-tropical beaches. Yet, the very same principles which underpin kite flying are now being touted as a serious and exciting means to generate renewable electricity.

As with other forms of electricity generation, kites capture energy and use it to rotate a turbine. Each kite has a steel tether which is attached to a turbine, and as a kite harnesses wind energy, it ascends up into the sky. This in turn spins the turbine, which generates electricity. Kites often operate in tandem, with one rising and the other falling at the same time, which ensures energy generation is more constant. In addition, some kites will have rotor blades attached to them which generate electricity, too, in the same way that traditional windmills do.

A technology with the wind in its sails

Given that they both harness the wind as their source of power, kites are often compared to conventional wind turbines when assessing their potential to be a viable method of producing electricity. However, as beneficial for the environment as wind turbines are and have been for the UK, it would appear that kites could offer several potential advantages.

To start with, consider that the strength of the wind – and hence energy generation potential – steadily increases with altitude, with high-altitude winds having twice the velocity of ground-level winds. Moreover, not only do winds blow more forcefully at higher elevations, they do so more predictably, too. Combined, these two facts mean that kites can exploit a stronger and more reliable stream of energy to convert into electricity, relative to turbines on the ground or out at sea.

Another compelling argument in favour of kite generated energy is cost. We know that renewables like solar and wind turbines have, especially recently, seen their costs fall dramatically due to improved economies of scale and technological learning. Yet companies who are in the kite energy sector believe their blossoming technology has the potential to be even cheaper.

Kites use fewer materials in production, are cheaper to build and set up, are easier to maintain once running, and have the potential to last longer. If as a result of stronger and more predictable winds they produce more energy too, then they effectively become all the more inexpensive because of the crucial cost per megawatt hour of energy produced equation by which all generating technologies are judged. Indeed, one kite energy company believes it could install a 100 megawatt capacity wind farm and begin delivering electricity significantly less expensively than £44.50 per megawatt hour.

As with any new technology, however, kite energy generation must be able to transfer its promising potential on paper into the real world. Cost estimates such as the one cited above are certainly eye-catching, but need to be backed up by hard evidence gathered through doing. At the moment, regulatory uncertainty abounds, and investors would want to be sure that any money they put into the hitherto commercially untested technology is not too much of a gamble.

That kites use fewer materials relative to wind turbines also has important environmental consequences. Often made from carbon-fibre, kites do away with literally thousands of tonnes of infrastructure associated with conventional wind turbines – the massive blades and tower, plus the concrete foundations, for instance – thus meaning that they require fewer resources to fabricate, and hence contain less embodied energy. Indeed, the steel and concrete used to build wind farms are some of the most energy and water intensive production materials around – although it must be said that they and other renewables like solar are still much less carbon intensive, relative to conventional fossil fuelled power stations.

Another key selling point for kite generated energy is that kites can be deployed in a wider variety of locations, often where other forms of generation could not be. Conventional wind turbines are limited as to where they can be placed because they must be able to reliably tap into ground windspeeds of at least five meters per second. Consequently, this rules out much of the land across the world. However, higher altitude wind speeds are considerably more constant – regardless of the location 500 or so meters below, where the kites would be anchored. In addition, because of their nature, kites could operate in locations where it is unviable to erect conventional wind turbines because of complex terrain, for instance.

Interestingly, one location where kite energy wind farms could be constructed is on the offshore pilings on which current wind turbines – soon due to be decommissioned – stand. As modern wind turbines are now much larger, the existing pilings have effectively been rendered redundant, and thus replacement ones would have to be (relatively more energy and resource intensively) built, should newly proposed wind farm projects get the go ahead.

Possible turbulence?

Despite impressive credentials, kite energy is not without its drawbacks. From a safety perspective, some have expressed concern about what happens should a kite’s tether snap. Furthermore, others have pointed out the natural susceptibility to lighting strikes which kites will have, flying so high up in the sky. This could not only damage the kite itself, but more importantly knock out the small but vital computers in the kite which control it. 

Yet perhaps the greatest challenge with which kites could possibly be faced will be securing regulatory permissions to ascend to such high altitudes. It is not hard to imagine authorities expressing hesitation over agreeing to a series of kites being deployed anywhere close to residential areas, or airspace in the proximity of flightpaths, for instance.

The almost inevitable opposition from the small but vocal minority who already campaign against wind turbines on visual grounds could be a final stumbling block for kite generated electricity. Indeed, it is foreseeable that kites could engender even more opposition than conventional turbines – for whilst some claim that kites in full flight will be virtually invisible, even an ardent believer in renewable energy may not relish the idea of a network of cables extending hundreds, even thousands, of feet up into the sky.


Conventional wind turbines have undoubtedly helped the UK in reducing carbon emissions and decelerating climate change through the way in which they have provided a clean alternative to dirty, fossil fuelled power stations. In the years since their inception, the turbines have become more efficient, and the blades that power them ever bigger. Despite this, it is not unreasonable to look at the developing sector of kite technology and think that the future of renewable energy generation might lie a little higher above our heads than first imagined. 

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue

What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?

Renewables such as wind and solar are a UK success story. Their share of total electricity generation has increased from 9% in 2011 to 25% in 2015. Over the same period, prices have fallen by 50% for solar and 43% for onshore wind. Yet, despite this rapid improvement, critics of renewable energy continue to ask two questions: First, how do you keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun doesn’t shine? Second, what is the cost of maintaining security of supply while increasing renewable capacity? There are convincing answers to both that should help meet such understandable concerns.

Balancing technologies

Ministers are clear that maintaining security of supply is the government’s first priority for energy policy. A large expansion of renewables must be consistent with that aim.

Renewables supplied a quarter of the UK’s electricity last year. But the lights still stayed on because government and National Grid plan ahead by commissioning back-up or balancing capacity to complement high levels of renewables. This additional capacity falls into two categories:

  • Fossil fuel back-up generation. Currently, this includes gas-fired power stations, diesel generators, and coal-fired power stations. Diesel and coal cause significant environmental harm, both in term of carbon emissions and air pollution. That’s why the Government has committed itself to phasing out all coal-fired power stations by 2025 and why Defra is investigating tighter emission regulations for diesel generators. As gas emits less carbon than either coal or diesel, it can play a medium-term role in backing up intermittent renewables as the power sector decarbonises. In our report, Keeping the lights on, we called for smaller-scale, flexible gas capacity in particular to be incentivised, through technologies such as reciprocating gas engines, so the grid can better respond to variable supply from renewables.
  • Flexible ‘smart power’ technologies. These include interconnection (transmitting low-carbon power from Europe to the UK through sub-sea cables), storage (saving surplus power and deploying when demand rises) and demand-side flexibility (shifting non-essential demand away from peak times). The National Infrastructure Commission recently produced a report on the potential of these technologies, finding such a system could provide an additional £8 billion of savings to consumers every year by 2030. These technologies are still developing, but interconnectors already provide over 4GW of capacity, with plans for that to increase almost three-fold by the early 2020s. Storage capacity is currently over 3GW, but with rapidly falling battery costs, this will also increase significantly in the coming years.

System costs of intermittency

So the lights can be kept on, even with lots of renewables on the grid. But how much does this cost bill-payers? In her energy policy reset speech last year, the then Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, argued that both the social cost of carbon and the system costs of intermittency should be included within the overall costs of different forms of electricity generation.

The system costs of intermittency are defined as the external costs imposed on the electricity grid as a result of integrating variable generation, including the cost of back-up capacity and the cost of balancing services. These system costs are highly contested and rely on a number of assumptions. A couple of trends can be observed, however. First, system costs for a particular renewable technology rise as the total capacity of that technology on the grid increases. Second, the costs decrease as the total capacity of balancing technologies, such as storage, increases.

For context, at the last auction for new capacity in 2015, onshore wind projects were awarded an £81 per MWh average strike price and solar projects £64.50 per MWh. Three recent reports have sought to quantify the system costs for intermittent renewables:

  • First, Imperial College London’s report for the Committee on Climate Change provides estimates for the system costs of different intermittent technologies, assuming the power sector achieves its 2030 carbon targets. In this central scenario, they find that wind and solar would have a system cost of between £6 and £9 per MWh.
  • Second, Nera’s report for Drax, which owns a biomass power station, estimated the system costs of intermittency are between £12 per MWh for onshore wind, £12 per MWh for solar, and £10 per MWh for offshore wind.
  • Third, a recent report by Aurora Energy Research for the Solar Trade Association found that the intermittency of the currently planned 11GW of solar on the grid will cost around £1.40 per MWh. This would rise to £6.80 per MWh if solar capacity reached 40GW by 2030. But with additional wind on the grid (a total of 45GW by 2030), the figure falls to £5.10 per MWh. In a scenario where there is 8GW of batteries on the grid by 2030, intermittent solar would actually provide a net benefit of £3.70 per MWh by optimising the use of these batteries.


Technologies are available to enable a high volume of renewables to be deployed on the grid while keeping the lights on. Intermittent renewables do carry a cost to the system, although it is a small proportion of the overall cost of building and operating them. Along with the cost of carbon, this can be included in the price of new generating capacity to ensure a level playing-field for mature technologies. System costs can be significantly reduced by encouraging storage, flexible gas, interconnection, and demand-response flexibility alongside renewables.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue