Gary McGovern: Policy vacuum risks blowing Scotland’s net zero carbon drive off course

Scotland will struggle to reach its net zero carbon targets unless Holyrood takes a swift and stronger grip on planning policy surrounding the deployment of taller turbine models, as well as a permissive approach to repowering of first-generation onshore windfarms with the latest technology, writes Gary McGovern.

Gary McGovern

The recognition of a climate emergency and adoption of a “net zero” target means more change is essential and many more onshore wind farms are needed in the energy mix. Also, unlike other types of development, permissions for windfarms are time-limited so that at the end of a specified period the turbines have to be removed. So, in the coming years, much of the current fleet of turbines will need replaced.

Happily, technology has advanced and the new generation of turbines are larger and more efficient. More output can be produced with fewer turbines. If Scotland is to achieve carbon neutrality, the benefits of such turbines cannot be ignored.

Unfortunately the planning policy framework is lagging behind. The current policy framework - in place since 2014 - does not properly reflect what Scotland now urgently needs to do, to address the climate emergency. It is therefore of great concern that the Scottish Government’s draft National Planning Framework 4, (NPF4) has been delayed from September 2020 until autumn 2021.

The wind industry has been making the case for some time that, to rise to the zero carbon challenge, planning policy must spell out a more positive, less caveated position, which recognises the need to optimise suitable sites with the latest technology. Therefore, the delay to NPF4 is significant. We could be in a vacuum for several years awaiting policy to reflect the new world order.

Meantime, investors and operators are faced with the time and expense of convincing planning authorities of the merits of more efficient turbines case by case. In the absence of clear and up-to-date national policy, the same objections are raised over and over again at local level. Many, including Scottish Natural Heritage for whom the climate emergency must also be a key concern, take the view that - if permitted at all - turbines should reflect what has gone before. But the world has moved on and repetition is not sustainable.

Worse, there is growing evidence of some local authorities trying to limit the scope for turbines in their area, by seeking to stack the deck against any new wind farm developments via local planning policy. Local Development Plans are supposed to help address the climate emergency and to reflect national policy. 

Those opposed to deployment of next generation turbines may point to previous successes in achieving renewables targets, and it is true that Scotland has performed well in delivering a sizable gigawatt capacity of onshore wind. But it has taken a long time, and the need for more is greater than ever. Moreover, the sites developed to date were (in relative terms) “easier” and delivered with the benefit of a favourable subsidy regime, compared to those which now need to be brought into production with little or no subsidy. It would be wrong to rest on laurels and take comfort from what has been done. We need to deliver the same again and more, at lower cost, in an accelerated timeframe.

For those reasons, industry has been calling for an interim policy or ministerial statement to provide clarity and underline the enhanced role of onshore wind in a net zero world, including the need to embrace taller turbines. Alas, instead the Scottish Government has begun consulting on proposals to withdraw the current policy presumption in favour of sustainable development. This is at odds with the net zero targets.

The reality is that a planning policy vacuum affecting the next generation of onshore windfarms could blow Scotland’s drive to lead the world in achieving carbon free status off-course. The Scottish Government seems to be seeking to please all concerned, and in the process adopting opaque policy positions. A stronger and clearer message is needed, which is that more onshore windfarms comprised of taller turbines are central to meeting new targets.

  • Gary McGovern is a partner at Pinsent Masons

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