Wind farm nimbyism means 10,000 jobs just went to Ireland

We're saving money, but Ireland is getting the work.

Yesterday the UK and Irish governments signed an agreement that could see British businesses and consumers funding wind farm developments in Ireland that will export electricity to the UK. As a way of mollifying wind farm critics and keeping costs down, the UK government’s approach is understandable. But the majority of Brits who favour wind power may question why they are paying for jobs in Ireland when unemployment is still at 7.7 per cent at home.

The scale of wind farm development in Ireland that may result from yesterday’s agreement is huge. One project alone, called Greenwire, could see 700 wind turbines with 3GW of generating capacity being built. The UK has a target to generate 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 so this project could contribute a tenth towards that goal.

To enable projects like Greenwire to go ahead the UK Government will need to provide financial incentives to developers. If they use the same approach as has been proposed for developments within the UK, the government will guarantee developers a set price for the energy they produce. The money required to meet this guarantee will come from increases to the energy bills of consumers and businesses.

In one sense this is a sensible move. Despite onshore wind power being the cheapest renewable technology, there is a vigorous campaign against expanding its use in the UK. If the growth of onshore wind is restricted and options for producing renewable electricity are limited to the UK’s borders, more expensive technologies, particularly offshore wind, will be needed as an alternative. The Greenwire developers claim their project will actually save consumers and businesses £7 billion compared with a scenario in which an equivalent amount of offshore wind was built.

So far, so good. But there is a catch: by outsourcing the generation of cheap onshore wind power to Ireland, Britain will miss the opportunity to create good quality jobs, develop skills and secure a comparative advantage in a burgeoning sector with huge global potential. Greenwire alone will create 10,000 new jobs in Ireland during its construction phase and 3,000 jobs in the longer term, so the developers claim. These are jobs that could be going to Brits.

Greenwire is a concrete example of how anti-wind farm campaigns could cost the UK jobs and growth.

Campaigners tend to be concerned about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines on the countryside and this must be taken into account. Less valid, however, are claims often made about the effectiveness of wind power technology. The Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that wind power is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, challenges posed by the variable nature of how much electricity wind farms produce, because the wind doesn’t always blow, are often overstated. This variability can be easily accommodated by the grid, posing no threat of power interruptions, at the levels of deployment expected for the technology by 2020.

The scale of opposition to onshore wind often seems larger than it is. This is because campaigners concerns have been amplified by certain segments of the press and championed by several government ministers including the Energy Minister, John Hayes. In fact most of the UK public consistently supports expanding the use of the technology.

These supporters should get angry if their money is used to support wind farms in Ireland instead of the UK, because major job and economic opportunities will be lost.

Editor's note: The headline of this piece was changed on 25 January at 15:45

Wind farms. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.