Increasing renewable energy generation was one of the big environmental achievements of the Coalition Government. The share of Britain’s electricity generated from renewable energy increased from 9% in 2011 to 25% in 2015. By displacing polluting coal from the grid, renewables have contributed significantly to major falls in greenhouse gas emissions over that period. From being a fringe element, renewables now play a central role in powering Britain’s homes and businesses.
And as renewable capacity increases, their costs fall. In over 30 countries, onshore wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels. In just six months last year, competitive power auctions saw global offshore wind prices fall by 22%. Here in the UK, the latest government estimates of the cost of different technologies finds that the next set of onshore wind and solar projects commissioned in the UK will be cheaper than gas.
But despite this success, there are some prominent conservatives who are sceptical of renewables. Today Bright Blue has published a new polling report, “Green conservatives? Understanding what conservatives think about the environment”, which unearths and analyses the nuance of what most Conservative voters actually think about environmental issues and policies, including renewable energy.
Priority of environmental issues
By a significant margin, Conservatives view increasing renewable energy generation as the most important environmental issue for government to support, with 52% putting the issue in their top three. It came ahead of improving air quality, tackling climate change, preventing development on greenfield land, and tackling the decline in the bee population.
EU environmental regulations after Brexit
Conservatives want to see the main EU environmental regulations at least maintained and, in several cases strengthened, following Brexit. We find that 85% of Conservatives support at least maintaining renewable energy generation targets after Brexit. There is in fact a small majority (56%) that want to see renewable energy targets increased.
There is not a huge divergence of opinion on EU environmental regulations between Conservatives who voted Leave and those who voted Remain in the EU referendum. Indeed, even for EU regulations that receive frequent criticism such as renewable energy generation targets, we find that 81% of Conservative Leave voters want to maintain or strengthen them.
Preferred energy sources
Conservatives have a more positive view of renewable power than of nuclear and fossil fuels. The five most positively viewed energy sources by Conservatives are all renewable and low-carbon. When asked to score how favourably they view certain energy sources (from zero as the least favourable and ten as the most), Conservatives give the highest average rating to solar power, with a mean score of 7.7. This is followed by tidal and offshore wind, which have mean scores of 7.6 and 7.2 respectively. Fourth, biomass has a 6.4 mean rating. Fifth, onshore wind’s score is 6.2.
Further development of onshore wind
The Conservative Government was elected in 2015 with a manifesto promise to “halt the spread of subsidised onshore wind farms”. After winning the General Election, the Government swiftly closed the Renewable Obligation a year earlier than planned for onshore wind and issued new planning guidance giving local planning authorities the final say over new onshore wind projects in their areas.
Our polling tests Conservative views on allowing further development of onshore wind farms. The most popular response is “Yes”, without any conditions, which 41% of Conservatives choose. Second, 23% of Conservatives respond “No”. Third, 18% select “Yes, but not if they receive subsidies”. Fourth, 11% do not know. Finally, 6% of Conservatives say “Yes, but not in my area”. Therefore, a clear majority of Conservatives (65%) support further development of onshore wind, provided certain conditions are met related to subsidies and a local veto.
In the next few months, the Government will be making several new announcements on renewable energy. The Clean Growth Plan will propose new policies for reducing carbon emissions in line with legally-binding carbon budgets, including in the power sector. The Spring Budget and industrial strategy green paper both promised new cost control policies for new low-carbon energy infrastructure.
As Conservative Ministers formulate these policies, it is important for them to know the views of the voters who elected them to power. Our report shows clearly that these Conservative voters are very supportive of renewable energy relative to other sources of energy – and they want the Government to encourage it.
Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue