Energy companies have warned that subsidy cuts will prevent them from replacing old wind farms as almost 1,000 turbines approach the end of their lives over the next decade.
Turbines are designed to last 20-25 years, and increasing numbers will reach the end of their serviceable life during the next parliament. According to industry body RenewableUK, the UK has 924 turbines that have been operating since before 2004.
The energy department insists it is committed to making green technologies “stand on their own two feet”, but developers have accused the government of making it economically unviable to improve existing sites.
The industry refers to improvements as “repowering,” but advances in technology mean this often involves completely decommissioning and replacing old turbines, making costs comparable with new developments. Modern wind turbines are more than three times the height and provide 10 times more output than turbines from the mid-1990s.
It was hoped that improving farms in prime locations would be a convenient way to increase energy capacity without building in new areas, but funding uncertainty is making companies reluctant to plan projects without government support.
Since May the government has changed planning laws and cancelled access to the main subsidies for onshore wind, the first steps in a plan to completely phase out renewables subsidies. Rachel Ruffle, projects director for Western Europe at renewables company RES, said recent policy changes would be “fundamental” to decisions about the future of its old assets.
“Repowering,” Ms Ruffle says, “clearly illustrates the need for long-term policymaking to deliver longer term investor confidence. Put simply, if the wind farms that are reaching their lifespans during the 2020s and 2030s are not replaced it will serve to exacerbate the problem of the energy ‘gap’ the UK currently faces.”
Last month, infrastructure group John Laing purchased the biggest repower project in Germany. Ross McArthur, managing director and head of renewable energy, said he expected to see more projects across the EU in the coming years: “It’s a no-brainer; you get more bang for your buck with more energy from fewer turbines. Even from a visual impact point of view, you’re replacing larger numbers with fewer, albeit taller, turbines.”
Fourteen repower projects have been completed or approved in the UK since 2010, but Mr McArthur said the UK market was now “more or less gone”.