The case for onshore wind

The Chancellor’s crusade against onshore wind, whatever the merits with his own backbenchers, is economically ill-judged.

In a straight political fight between George Osborne and Ed Davey, few pundits would have put their money on the Chancellor losing. Not only has the Department of Energy and Climate Change recently lost its Permanent Secretary, in what can only be described as strange circumstances, but a much-trailed cut in subsidy support for onshore wind was kicked into the long grass of the Parliamentary summer recess.

So how is it that when the extent to which subsidies would be cut was finally determined this week it was announced that it would be DECC’s 10 per cent cut rather than the Chancellor’s preferred cut of 25 per cent? There has been so much political debate around wind power that, perhaps, the economic case has been overlooked. Osborne’s case against onshore wind is simply this: wind does not blow all the time, so why should we subsidise a technology that is intermittent, cannot provide the base load of electricity supply and despoils some of the most beautiful landscape in the country which, incidentally, happens to be in Conservative-held seats?

The answer, of course, is that in the long-term we should not. Subsidies should never be a permanent feature of any market. They should be introduced only to address market failure and they should be withdrawn gradually as those distortions in the market are addressed. Treasury economists no doubt recognise the economic rectitude of such a position; whether they can square it with their ongoing subsidies to fossil fuels is entirely a different matter.

Last year, the OECD estimated that in 2010 the subsidies for coal, gas and petrol in the UK amounted to £3.6bn on top of which the Chancellor, in the 2012 budget, has announced further exploration and production subsidies of £65m to develop the West of Shetland fields. Quite what market failures these subsidies are being used to redress is unclear. On the contrary, it would appear that the fossil fuels has an entrenched subsidy culture where such taxpayer handouts are regarded as a right rather than a means of addressing what is an otherwise unlevel playing field. The total subsidy paid to onshore wind amounted to less than £400m in 2010-11 or £6 on the annual bill of the average household. This gives some better sense of proportion about the subsidy onshore wind currently enjoys against the £3.6bn in consumption subsidies that fossil fuels enjoy before the cost of carbon emissions is even factored in.

The real market failure is that the environmental, social and economic cost of greenhouse gas emissions is not properly factored into our fossil fuel price. The government has recognised this and has tried to attribute a price to carbon emissions through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Unfortunately the carbon price has neither been stable enough nor high enough to redress this market failure even for the 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions that are covered by the ETS. This means that fossil fuels are operating in a market that is tilted distinctly in their favour.  Renewables such as onshore wind, and which do not produce polluting carbon emissions, are perhaps entitled to claim therefore that there is a clear justification for being subsidised. Bringing new technologies to the market can be difficult and many technologies have died in the valley that lies between demonstrator prototype and full commercial development. If the UK is to develop world leading renewable technology the Government must be prepared to support them to market. The Renewable Obligation subsidy, brought in under Labour, was designed to do this - supporting new wind generation as technology is successively improved and economies of scale reduce production costs. It is worth noting that it is precisely the positive trajectory of onshore wind that led DECC to argue that the subsidy could be reduced by 10% in the first place.

This trajectory leads some in the industry to predict that onshore wind will be cost competitive with gas by 2020. For this reason the subsidy should progressively be reduced, but, at the same time, the gas sector should increasingly pay the full cost of its carbon emissions which it is currently failing to do. Even if average household electricity consumption remains unchanged (and we should all sincerely hope it reduces dramatically) and even if the subsidy remains unchanged (and it has already come down and will further) the additional cost to a household bill in 2020 as a result of the most optimistic growth forecast in onshore wind would still only be £13 per year. Yet gas produces significant carbon emissions and onshore wind produces none.

The Chancellor’s crusade against onshore wind, whatever the merits with his own backbenchers, is economically ill-judged. What compounds his mistake though, is that he has now demanded additional measures to subsidise gas. Should policy change to ensure we meet our carbon budgets, these investments will prove to be redundant as we will require electricity produced at approximately 50 grams of CO₂e per kilowatt/hour. Gas-fired power stations cannot achieve this. The Chancellor is using public money to subsidise investment in a technology that will be incapable of meeting the legal requirements of the UK’s climate Change Change Act.

Barry Gardiner is the Labour MP for Brent North and Ed Miliband's Special Envoy on Climate Change and the Environment

The Whitelee onshore windfarm in Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and shadow minister for Energy and Climate Change. 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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