British Offshore Wind Power – Icebergs Ahead!

Britain is now leading the world in terms of installed offshore windfarm capacity (nearly 600 MW). However, the British wind power lobby is struggling to rescue government plans for renewable energy from fantasy land. The UK government, under pressure from a range of interests to accede to a popular demand for ambitious renewable energy targets, has suggested that over 30 percent of UK electricity could come from renewable energy by 2020. But the government’s proposals for offshore wind power do not add up to what it says they do.

A 30 percent plus target (of electricity by 2020) would certainly be necessary if the UK government was able to come anywhere near the target it has been assigned under the new EU Renewables Directive. According to the directive, the UK needs to achieve 15 percent of total final energy from renewables by 2020. This is a tough target given that it would require almost all of current UK electricity to come from renewables if the target was to be met from electricity sources alone.

In fact the UK renewables program is making some significant, if belated, progress. Renewable electricity production is expanding by almost 1 percent per year. Renewables will be generating 6 percent of UK electricity in 2009, almost half of that from wind power.

Indeed, despite all the background noise about planning problems there are now enough contracts in place or plans in the pipeline to generate around 7 percent of UK electricity from onshore wind power. Added to this is a further 6 percent from realizable offshore wind power that is going to be given planning consent. If you add onto this the electricity coming from other renewables, including biomass, hydro and, by 2020, small contributions from sources like tidal stream energy, then the UK should plausibly be getting close to the 20 percent of electricity target by 2020.

When the renewables lobby was arguing for the 20 percent by 2020 electricity target three years ago it was widely touted as unachievable. Things have sped up since then. Yet this increase in speed has failed to keep pace with the accelerating nature of the domestic demands for cuts in carbon emissions and EU clean energy targets.

In order to make a show of keeping up with the game the government has played the offshore wind power card. It produced a plan aiming for 25 percent of electricity to come from offshore wind alone by 2020.

When it came to taking the first steps to implement this plan, the government produced a proposal from its Crown Agents to achieve the bulk of this target by penciling in many of the windfarms north of the Dogger Bank. This is over 100 kilometers off the east coast of England in the North Sea where the water depth is mostly 40-60 meters, much deeper than any of the offshore windfarms that have been, or soon will be, installed. This increased depth is likely, according to a report from the Carbon Trust (a quasi-government body), to increase offshore windfarm costs by 40 percent.

British offshore windfarm developers are already reeling from the combined effects of a depreciating pound (the turbines are all imported) and a shortage of machines suitable for the offshore market. These problems may well dissipate in the medium term, especially if manufacturers like Clipper make good on their plans to manufacture large quantities of machines in the UK.

However it will take a longer time before technical solutions can be implemented that can deliver economically viable offshore windfarms in waters more than 40 meters deep. Of course, many deepwater windfarms might be established if money is not an issue. Yet there is little effective pressure on the government to produce the considerable increase in incentives for offshore wind that would be needed to make deepwater windfarms a commercial reality before 2020.

The Carbon Trust has suggested that the government cut the costs of the offshore wind program through a number of different ways. The biggest suggested stratagy, is, in effect, that the government should stop giving way to all of the demands posed by the various lobbies with interests in the sea.

These special interest groups include the Ministry of Defense that wants lots of training space, shipping interests, fisheries interests and various environmental interests that want to defend resources available for sea life and birds. The best apparent hope seems to be a compromise that opens the way for some more offshore windfarms, but comprising a lot less than the 25 percent of UK electricity from offshore wind power that the government has signposted.

A further hazard is the probability of a conservative government being elected in 2010. In 2007 some conservative spokespersons said that they would end long term guarantees of funding support for onshore windfarms. However cheap onshore wind may be, its capital intensive nature means that it needs long term guarantees of acceptable price levels for the electricity the turbines generate. Otherwise they will be no turbines – an outcome many countryside Tories quite savour!

Chasing foxes and preserving a wind turbine free landscape are important priorities for many Conservatives. The wind lobby — organized by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) — has been working hard behind the scenes to encourage the Tories to be more enlightened, but it remains to be seen what will happen in practice. In short, the UK renewables program is beginning to pick up speed at last, but there are still icebergs lurking in its path, and not just in the Dogger Bank.

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Dr David Toke is Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy in the Department of Political Science and International Studies in the University of Birmingham (UK). He was a key player in the campaign to establish feed-in tariffs for small renewable projects in the UK, the legislation for which was passed in 2008. His latest academic book is called "Ecological Modernisation and Renewable Energy," published in March 2011 by Palgrave. He has published many papers in leading academic journals on environmental, especially energy (and renewable energy) issues and he writes a ‘green energy’ blog at http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.com/.

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