Ministers face fresh accusations of breaking their manifesto commitment to end onshore wind subsidies
Dozens of new onshore wind turbines could be built on picturesque Scottish islands at bill-payer expense, after ministers confirmed the islands may be excluded from their manifesto pledge to end subsidies for the technology.
Controversial projects on Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles could yet qualify for even higher subsidies than those that have been offered to projects elsewhere in the UK, under the plan.
Ministers last night faced fresh accusations of reneging on their manifesto commitment, which made no mention of any exemption for Scottish islands and simply vowed to “halt the spread of onshore windfarms” and to “end any new public subsidy for them”.
It comes after ministers were last week accused of trying to “con” consumers by considering a separate wind industry proposal to reclassify payments to cheaper new onshore wind farm projects on the UK mainland as “subsidy-free”, if they were cheaper than gas-fired power plants.
It has now emerged that in spite of the manifesto pledge, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is also still actively seeking EU state aid clearance to offer higher subsidies to onshore wind farms on the Scottish islands by classifying them as a “separate technology” to onshore wind farms elsewhere.
If EU clearance is granted, DECC could then opt to offer subsidy contracts to support the construction of new wind farms that critics say will blight the landscapes of the remote islands.
Among the projects hoping to secure a subsidy contract is the 103-turbine Viking development on Shetland. Campaign group Sustainable Shetland claims the wind farm would see “a generation grow up knowing nothing better than hilltops covered with wind turbines”. A legal challenge against planning consent for the project was thrown out last year.
Energy giant SSE, one of the backers of the project, confirmed it was “continuing to develop the Viking project” and hoped to qualify for the new contracts.
Another island project hoping to gain a subsidy contract is the proposed 35-turbine Stornoway Wind Farm on Lewis, which local opponents fear will result in landowners “clearing the crofters and the sheep for windmills”.
The DECC plans could see the projects compete for subsidy contracts in a category of “less established” technologies, alongside offshore wind farms.
Ministers have said they intend to continue subsidising offshore turbines, despite the fact they are even more expensive than onshore.
Conservative MP Peter Lilley, a vocal critic of wind farm costs, said the plan sounded “inconsistent with the manifesto commitment”.
He added: “The whole idea that we don’t subsidise the cheaper form of wind energy but do subsidise the more expensive is slightly bizarre and this is a further twist to the bizarreness – that is it is sufficiently expensive on land we will subsidise it as well.”
Michael Rieley, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables, said: “Scotland’s island regions boast some of the greatest renewable energy resources in Europe, with among the most efficient wind power sites anywhere in the British Isles.”
But John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a group critical of wind farm costs, said the electricity generated from the proposed projects would be “extremely expensive”. “It is difficult to see why DECC does not deal firmly with such high cost schemes,” he said.
Official analysis shows the cost of onshore wind farms on remote islands is “significantly higher than comparable projects on the mainland”, even when taking into account the fact that turbines on the windswept islands will generate more power than those elsewhere.
The remote island projects require “expensive subsea transmission links” to connect to the UK Grid and also have “significantly higher operation costs”, ministers have previously acknowledged.
One City analyst, who asked not to be named, said it seemed “very strange” that the Government was “very vocally saying ‘no subsidies for onshore wind’, while still planning on (selectively) giving subsidies to onshore wind”.
“We could have a situation whereby onshore wind gets developed in the Western Isles / Shetland at strike price of say £115/MWh, when the UK government is steadfastly opposed to developing additional onshore wind capacity on the mainland at a strike price of say £70-£80/MWh.”
Last year, ministers announced the early closure of the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme for onshore wind, which is the main scheme that has fuelled the growth of the turbines to date.
But they have yet to confirm whether they will continue to offer contracts to onshore wind turbines through a replacement scheme of subsidy contracts, saying only they will decide "in due course".
A DECC spokesman said: "There is absolutely no change to our commitment to end new onshore wind subsidies. As we set out in June 2015, wind power in the Remote Islands will not receive subsidies through the old Renewables Obligation system anyway.
"We will set out decisions about technologies which qualify for subsidies through the new Contracts for Difference system in due course.
"Our actions have shown that we will be tough on subsidies, in order to keep bills down for our families and businesses and ensure value for money."