UK windfarm and environmental targets—are we on course?

UK windfarm and environmental targets—are we on course?

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Hornsea Project Two, which is intended to be the world’s largest windfarm, has been given development consent by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS). The windfarm aims to deliver up to 1,800 megawatts (MWs) of low carbon energy to around 1.8 million homes.

What will be the environment and energy impact of the largest ever windfarm, which is to be built in the UK?

Anita Lloyd, director at Squire Patton Boggs, comments on the project and government targets, and says there appears to be an increased focus on renewable energy sources on the part of government.

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What is the background to this story?

The UK government has a target of 15% of its energy consumption coming from renewable sources by 2020, although recent reports indicate that the UK will fall short of this by 3.5% (which equates to about 50 TWh). The Committee on Climate Change’s latest report also says that the government is not on track to meet its pledge of cutting emissions 80% by 2050—so more efforts to decarbonise are needed to meet both the short and long term targets.

In the Budget in March 2016, George Osborne announced £730m of funding for ‘less established’ renewables. There will be contracts for difference (CfD) of up to £730m for up to 4GW of offshore wind and other less established renewables. Shortly before the budget speech, the then Prime Minister David Cameron also said the UK would cut power sector emissions by 85% by 2030, which is in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s fifth carbon budget.

Added to that context is the Paris Agreement which will shortly come into force, under which the UK is currently part of the EU bloc’s commitment to ‘at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030’.

Hornsea Project Two will be able to take advantage of some of that government funding, and will contribute to meeting the renewables targets. It will be built 55 miles off the coast of Grimsby, with an expected 80–300 turbines (276m high), spanning an area of 483 square kilometres.

Are there likely to be any environmental issues if the project goes ahead?

While the implications for the environment on a macro level are positive, on a micro level there may be adverse effects, specifically relating to the effect it may have on harbour porpoises in the area. This is due to noise generated by the construction of this sort of development which can affect these sea mammals. This resulted in the announcement of the development consent being delayed for two months because DEFRA belatedly proposed a 36,000 sq km area in the North Sea (including the entire area of this new windfarm) as a special area of conservation for the indigenous porpoise. This meant that a Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC assessment therefore had to be carried out to assess the likely significant effects of this and other projects in this proposed special areas of conservation (SAC).

The UK government is separately under threat of legal action by the EU for failing to designate sufficient special areas of SACs for this species as required by the Habitats Directive.

Concerns have also been raised about the effects on sea birds in the area. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has raised warnings that it will ‘lead to the deaths of hundreds of globally important seabirds’ and that the currently proposed ecological mitigation measures are inadequate.

What benefits does the offshore wind farm project hold over the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant? How much power will be generated?

Hinkley is projected to cost up to £37bn. Once operational, it should generate 3,200 MW of energy, supplying 7% of UK total power, and providing energy to 6 million homes.

Hornsea Project Two is expected to cost £6bn and to generate 1,500 MW of energy, supplying 1.8 million homes.

On the face of it, Hornsea has a lower cost-base per MW generated, but there are many other factors, including the feasibility of having the quantity of Hornsea-style offshore wind installations to match the capacity of a single Hinckley plant, and the intermittence issues of wind power.

Are there any environmental incentives or schemes that the wind farm will benefit from?

As mentioned above, the government will provide £730m by way of CfDs for this sort of project, so Hornsea Project Two will benefit from some of this funding.

What is the significance of this decision for environment and energy lawyers?

There may be legal challenges in relation to the environmental mitigation aspects of this project, associated with the concerns noted above about porpoises and birds. On the other hand, it also shows an upward trend in offshore renewables developments, which require legal support from energy lawyers through the planning and contracting process. The costs of wind turbine equipment have fallen by almost a third since 2009 and there is predicted to be a step change in wind energy deployment over the next ten years as a result of these falling costs and the UK government’s commitments to climate change targets, such as under the Paris Agreement. Therefore, there are likely to be more opportunities for energy lawyers to become involved in this type of project in the coming years.

What does this decision tell us about the new government’s approach to energy policy in the UK?

There appears to be an increased focus on renewable energy sources, potentially driven by the projected failure to meet the 2020 renewables targets unless there is an increase in capacity. However, the recent change in government and impending exit of the UK from the EU means there is still some uncertainty as to the UK’s longer term strategy for renewables.

Once the UK exits the EU, it will not be bound by the EU 2020 renewables targets, but still has its own more challenging domestic targets set by the Climate Change Act 2008 of cutting emissions 80% by 2050, and renewable energy must form part of the strategy to reach that target.

Changes in the government’s organisation around energy and climate change—scrapping the Department of Energy and Climate Change and replacing the Secretary of State for Environment—have led commentators to question the new Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling climate change, but it remains to be seen how this will play out.

How does this decision fit in with other developments in this area? Do you have any predictions for future developments?

There are a number of other major offshore schemes in the pipeline. If approved by the government in 2018, Hornsea Project Three will be expected to be operational by 2023–2025; and in the longer term there are plans for Hornsea Project Four. There are other major future projects planned in The Moray Firth and Norfolk/East Anglia. It is predicted that the UK could have up to 15GW of offshore wind by 2025 (currently there is about 5GW from operational offshore wind farms).

Interviewed by Nicola Laver.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.




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