In early June 2015, the UK Department for Energy & Climate Change (“DECC”) was expected to announce plans to close the existing subsidy scheme for onshore wind, the Renewables Obligation (“RO”), to new generating capacity a year earlier than expected. This announcement has been delayed amid concerns that it could spark potential legal challenges from the industry and lead to a dispute with the Scottish Government over the future of onshore wind.

In this three-part series, we outline how the RO operates, the potential impact of the early closure of the RO upon the onshore wind industry, and the possible routes for challenge and redress for industry participants who may be affected.

Part One: An Overview of the Renewables Obligation and Plans for Its Early Closure

How does the RO operate?

The RO is designed to support renewable electricity projects in the UK. It obliges UK electricity suppliers to source a proportion of the electricity that they supply to customers from eligible renewable sources. The RO is currently set to close to all new generating capacity of any technology on 31 March 2017.

Ofgem, which administers the scheme, issues Renewable Obligation Certificates (“ROCs”) to electricity generators for the eligible renewable electricity they generate.  The ROCs are sold, either directly or indirectly, to electricity suppliers, who can use the ROCs to demonstrate their compliance with their annual obligations (i.e., “redeem” the ROCs against their RO). If a supplier does not present sufficient ROCs to meet its RO, it must pay a penalty known as the buy-out price. The funds collected by Ofgem from the buy-out price are redistributed on a pro-rata basis to suppliers who redeem ROCs.

What are the proposed changes to the RO?

Before winning the UK general election, the Conservative party pledged that it would end “any new public subsidies” for onshore wind farms on the basis that they “often fail to win public support and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires”.

DECC is expected announce that it will close the RO to new generating capacity in April 2016, instead of April 2017. Such a move has been described as “going further” than the Conservative party’s pre-election pledge, by ending an existing subsidy a year earlier than expected. At present, DECC has reportedly declined to confirm the precise nature of the proposals.

The majority Conservative Government disclosed in late May 2015 that it would “be announcing measures to deliver this soon”, after conducting a consultation with the devolved administrations (Scotland and Northern Ireland) over the nature of the changes. However, at the time of writing, an announcement has not yet been made.

The basis for delaying the announcement of these measures appears to be twofold.

First, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, have opposing opinions over the future of onshore wind. While Cameron has stated that “enough is enough” for onshore wind subsidies,  Sturgeon has demanded a veto on the Conservative’s plans. Energy Minster Amber Rudd stated that the consultation with devolved authorities would continue “until we have arrived at a firm policy”, and MPs would have to “bear with us a little longer”.

Second, trade bodies representing the onshore wind industry have vocally opposed the Conservative’s plans, due to their potentially significant effect on the future of onshore wind in the UK. The possible impact on the industry is considered in part two of this series.