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Realism takes centre stage

If the old maxim that no news is good news is to be believed, then these must be hard times for the wind power sector.

From cry-wolf articles in the mainstream press about wind turbines destroying previously unspoiled landscapes, to US-China trade stand-offs over rare-earth metals, to reports about Europe's energy infrastructure needs passing EUR1 trillion, it has been a hectic few weeks in the news for the sector.

At the European Future Energy Forum last month in London, UK - the first such event I attended in my new role as Windpower Monthly's editor - optimism and realism were present in equal doses.

Beyond the general consensus you would expect at this kind of gathering about the fact that renewables are here to stay, various alarm bells were ringing about the hurdles facing the sector. Money, for a start. The high price tag attached to renewable energy, and offshore wind power in particular, means that private-sector investment is a necessity.

Attracting finance

Private investors need certainty, which means both a sufficient degree of faith in the technology and significant confidence in the stability of the regulatory framework. Other factors, including overcoming transmission and interconnection bottlenecks, boosting the price of carbon, and research and development (R&D) driving down the cost of renewables, were also high on the list of things that need to happen over the next decade if the renewables revolution is to turn into reality.

According to Michael Lewis of E.on Climate & Renewables, a pan-European approach to incentives for renewable energy is a must. "At the moment there is a patchwork in place," he complained. This takes investors to the place where the support is the greatest, not to the best place in terms of efficiency, he added in a thinly veiled jibe at cloudy Germany's high support for solar photovoltaics.

As the UK energy and climate minister, Chris Huhne, said: "We need to put in place the right framework to make the low-carbon transition possible and profitable." He talked of a third industrial revolution in which everyone has a role to play and the scope for global co-operation is immense.

In practice, the likelihood of the 27 EU member states agreeing to a common support framework - let alone striking a deal with other world powers - is nil. While some coordination is desirable, policy makers in each country will have to put together the package that suits their own market best.

"It is important to have targets," Denmark's climate and energy minister Lykke Friis told me after her speech at the London forum. "Without targets it is very difficult to keep momentum." She attributed Denmark's early success in deploying renewables to clear policies, a strong system of feed-in tariffs and an emphasis on R&D.

But global cooperation is also a key element for success. As the London Array offshore wind development demonstrates, Friis said, large companies need to work together on projects of this scale to share the cost and the risk.

In policy terms, the EU must press ahead with raising its emission reduction targets from 20% to 30%, she said, adding that it would be good for jobs, the environment and Europe's economy. And it would put pressure on the US and China to up their own games.

While the main hurdles to the renewables revolution range from the financial to the technical, from the administrative to the environmental, it seems that the key to unlocking the answers is firmly in the hands of the politicians.

Nadia Weekes is editor of Windpower Monthly.

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