Hundreds of local revolts against wind farms have jeopardised the plan to use them to generate more than a quarter of Britain's electricity, figures seen by The Independent reveal.
New wind farms are needed to have any chance of creating enough renewable energy to reduce reliance on coal and gas power production. But planning approvals for them in England are at an all-time low, with only one in three applications getting the go-ahead from councils in the face of angry and organised opposition from people living nearby.
More than 230 separate local campaign groups against wind farms are operating across the UK, from Scotland and Kent to Norfolk, Yorkshire and Cornwall. These groups are scoring striking successes in defeating planned wind farms – even when faced with the weight of official recommendations.
In the last 12 months to September, there has been a 50 per cent drop in planning approvals in England, and approvals for windfarms in Scotland have also fallen.
The number of new windfarms coming “on-stream” (becoming active) has also fallen by 30 per cent – partly as a result of the recession.
The figures are revealed in a report on the state of the industry which will be published next week and has been seen by The Independent.
They cast doubt on the ability of the Government to reach its target of generating 20 per cent of all our energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. Changes to planning laws due to be announced later this year are expected to make it harder still to get planning permission.
Campaigners say that although windfarms maybe needed to combat global warming, the turbines – often as tall as the London Eye - are an eyesore in some of the most beautiful parts of the country, unacceptably noisy and can decimate local bird population. They suggest that all new windfarms should be built off-shore.
But environmentalists and industry experts say this is unrealistic. The time needed to build off-shore wind farms can be up to seven years, they are more expensive and the technology is still a relatively immature.
If Britain is to meet its renewable targets, they say, it is vital that onshore wind farms continue to be built at a significant rate well into the 2020s.
The situation is typified by instances such as those in North Yorkshire, where local politicians recently vetoed plans to build seven turbines in the face of official advice that they should go-ahead after a concerted local campaign.
Permission for the windfarm was later granted on appeal to the Planning Inspectorate but Maurice Cann, head of planning at Hambleton District Council, said that might not happen under the Government’s new localism plans.
“The court of public opinion plays a big role here,” he said. “I can see the situation getting worse. Some of these structures are 125 metres high and have a huge visual impact. It does not surprise me at all that so many applications are getting rejected.
“With the Government’s agenda to give a stronger voice to local politicians this is only going to become more of an issue.”
Local councils are to get more power to make planning decisions in their areas and the Planning Inspectorate, which has given the go-ahead to a number of wind farm projects turned down by local planning authorities, will no longer have this power.
It now takes on average nearly two years from the point of application for windfarms to be approved by local councils and even then up to three-quarters will be unsuccessful, according to the report by RenewableUK, which represents the windfarm industry.
This compares with a 70 per cent approval rating for other major infrastructure projects such as supermarkets and roads.
“The industry has significant concerns for both the rate and consistency of local decision making on projects yet to come forward for determination,” the report concludes.
Gordon Edge, director of policy for RenewableUK, said that for every completed windfarm, 18 projects had been considered and rejected, either for feasibility or planning problems.
“One of the main issues for us is the cost and the unpredictability of the planning system. If we are going to meet our renewables target it is vital that we have a planning system that we can predict and depend on.”
Martyn Williams, from Friends of the Earth, said he could understand why people were opposed to windfarms in their local areas but a compromise needed to be found.
“The dilemma is that we believe people should be able to say what they want where they live but at the same time every part of the country has to do its bit if we are to get emissions down to a sustainable level.
“What we would favour is for local area to be given their own carbon targets and make there own decisions on how they get – and that is very relevant to [David] Cameron’s idea of the big society.”
Michael Hird, from the Campaign against Windfarms, said they were proud of the fact that they had managed to significantly slow down the growth of turbines across Britain.
“We are fighting from the trenches to slow down the growth of windfarms until people understand just how bad they are.
“The windfarm industry had hoped to created 10,000 windfarms by now and they’ve only managed 2,500. That is some success but there is still a long way to go.”
Mr Hird added that one of the problems they faced was the huge subsidies available to farmers prepared to have wind farms on their land.
“They’ve been unbelievably generous and a lot of farmers have been persuaded by the money on offer. The industry will build these things everywhere unless somebody stops them.”
Gary Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Environment Board, insisted councillors were not to blame but the system.
“Councillors are elected to represent the interests and concerns of people in their area and will quite rightly take this into account when making decisions on whether to permit this sort of development,” he said.
“The industry must do more to make sure that they choose suitable sites which get local support. The refusals are not a reflection on councils but on the poor quality of the applications.
“It is only when local communities can see clearly the benefits of renewable energy at both national and local level that individual proposals for renewable energy will be welcomed as a matter of course.”