Global Policy Forum

A Sea Change: The Wind Farm Revolution


By Ian Herbert

October 11, 2007

Giant turbines are rapidly becoming a feature of the landscape. And now a wave of applications is poised to make Britain the world leader in offshore wind power generation. But there's one hurdle in the way of this breakthrough for renewable energy: bureaucracy.

For those who have grown accustomed to a windswept life on some of Britain's more exposed coastlines, the presence of the free, limitless energy supply in their midst is probably hard to appreciate. But the potential fuel bonanza provided by wind was underlined yesterday when the British Energy Association said that Britain could, within 12 months, overtake Denmark as the world leader in offshore wind power generation. The UK's projected wind energy output was boosted this week by the approval of the London Array project in the Thames Estuary. It will generate more electricity than any offshore plant in the world and Britain is now well on its way to having well over half of the world's offshore wind power plants currently in construction.

Offshore projects, more appealing to those who believe land-based turbines are a blot on the landscape, are avoiding some of the local resistance from planners which have long bedevilled onshore schemes. With developers eyeing three main strategic sites in England – the Greater Wash, the Thames Estuary and north-west England – several projects are expected to come online in the next few years. The offshore projects currently planned, together with those already in operation, could supply a total of 20 gigawatts of clean electricity, amounting to 17 per cent of the UK's total electricity supply. As well as the five offshore wind farms currently in operation, another 10 have won approval and eight are at the planning stage. One of the biggest in the offing is the Lynne/Inner Dowsing project in Lincolnshire. It comprises two adjacent wind farms acquired by Centrica in December 2003, which are being built 5km (3 miles) off the Skegness coast. The two 90-megawatt farms are together expected to provide enough power for more than 130,000 homes and to reduce CO2 emissions significantly.

But it is the ambition shown by developers of the London Array project that truly illustrates Britain's potential to become a world leader in offshore power. Although a clash between different green lobbies has already created further delays, the project, the world's largest offshore wind farm, should be ready to provide clean power for a quarter of London's homes by 2010. Plans for an electricity sub-station near Faversham proved unpopular and have created hold-ups during which the costs for the scheme have risen from the original estimate of £1.5bn to closer to £2bn.

Yet the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) has warned that long time lapses between planning approval for wind farms and their completion could mean that offshore wind generation does not make its expected contribution in reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, in line with government targets. The complex system of approving and installing offshore plants means that developers must wait two years for the Government to complete environmental impact assessments. They then have to apply to two government departments for further approval. Only then can they put together a financial deal to get the project under way. And, not until all these hurdles are cleared will the National Grid begin the process, often taking years, to establish the infrastructure that can deliver the wind farm's power into homes. "The industry has all guns blazing but the infrastructure is not there to ease forward the level of investment we have," said the BWEA's Charlie Anglin.

The BWEA says streamlining at every juncture could reduce the current 10-year lead for projects to seven and is keen to see the power regulator Ofgem allow the National Grid to predict where wind-power delivering infrastructure to the grid might be needed, rather than wait until operators have confirmed financing. BWEA estimates that the current delays means about 6 per cent of Britain's total electricity generation potential is currently stuck within the system. The BWEA also says there is a potential problem with the supply of manufactured turbines. Rapidly growing demand in recent years has left suppliers unable to cope; some have a year-long order backlog. High commodity prices have also pushed up the cost of turbines.

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