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Blog: We aren’t finished with Onshore Wind and setting new targets can help keep it on the agenda

01 Jun 2021

Onshore wind is now rightly seen as a “mature” technology, but it continues to evolve. 6MW onshore turbines are now a reality and machines at 4.3MW are effectively the industry standard.  Whilst many may think that the work is “done” with regards to onshore, the reality is that achieving net zero targets will still require the deployment of significant levels of new onshore capacity.  So, in a world where offshore wind is understandably capturing the attention of policy makers, how do we keep onshore wind on the energy policy agenda?

In recent months there has been growing discussion in the industry about a development target for onshore wind.  In the past we’ve tended to avoid these figures, fearing that they may be misleading, exaggerated or lead to complacency if not stretching enough.

However, we believe that the time for an onshore wind target has arrived; a focal point which concentrates minds on the challenge ahead and allows the appropriate steps to be taken to ensure we develop the additional onshore capacity we will need.

Most now accept the need for a target, but there is still a debate to be had about what that target should be.  The Committee on Climate Change scenarios talk about 30GW by 2050 and Renewables UK have recently talked about 30GW by 2030.  A significant proportion of the existing onshore wind capacity is in Scotland and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Scotland will deliver the bulk of new capacity.

The latest figures from BEIS show that there is around 11GW either awaiting construction or in the planning system, but we need to look beyond how many MWs are consented and focus instead on how many MWs are actually being built each year.

We know that a significant proportion of this existing 11GW won’t make it to construction and it’s important to guard against the view held by some that the existing pipeline will be enough.

We need to think not just about what an overall target for onshore wind in Scotland should be, but how much more genuinely new build development we will need to achieve it. Based on the existing figures, we estimate that Scotland will need an additional new-build target of at least 4GW by 2030 and that will probably entail a development pipeline of up to 8GW. To be clear, this is over and above that which is currently in construction, consented or going through the planning system.

We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge this presents.  The industry is nowhere near achieving the run-rate needed to meet this target and there are significant challenges to overcome.

Land requirements for this amount of new development are considerable. In Scotland we have no shortage of land, but frankly not enough, once you take into account the restrictions brought about by policies which aren’t currently aligned with the climate emergency and the requirement to develop significant levels of new renewable energy generation.

We need a more open and honest conversation about what that entails – there will be an impact on the environment from onshore wind development but that does not necessarily mean it is negative. The industry already has a hugely positive impact on Scotland’s biodiversity. SSE Renewables alone has over 21,000 hectares of habitat under management as a result of our existing windfarms, but we shouldn’t pretend that there is no impact from development.

We need a planning system which tilts the balance in favour of renewable energy development and gives it sufficient weight when considered against other factors such as landscape, limits on bigger turbines, impact on wild land and preserving carbon rich soils.

We also need to take what should be the easy wins where we can find them.  There should a presumption in favour of repowering existing sites. In certain circumstances, opportunities to repower older sites with larger turbines will help meet these ambitious targets. Alternatively, life extension and refurbishment activities may retain valuable MW of capacity.

Delivering this will also require Scottish Government and all its agencies to work together consistently to deliver and implement these changes.  The appointment of a new Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy is very welcome and an opportunity to drive a consistent approach.

If we get this right, the prize isn’t just faster decarbonisation, but also putting onshore wind at the heart of a green recovery from the COVID pandemic. Unlocking development in onshore can deliver significant levels of investment and jobs into the economy at pace.

The time for targets for onshore wind has come. Without it, there is a danger that we won’t deliver the volumes of new onshore wind required for decarbonisation and lose the economic benefits that come with it.