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United Kingdom

Interview - UK energy minister Charles Hendry

UK: The UK must double its installation rate to hit its 2020 target for installed wind capacity. Energy minister Charles Hendry tells James Quilter about the government's commitment to wind.

For a minister of state in the UK's year-old centre-right coalition government, Charles Hendry is in a good position. While other departments are embroiled in cost-cutting, the UK's energy sector is one area where the government is prepared to invest.

The UK's wind sector, and in particular offshore, is at the forefront of the government's energy plans as it seeks to generate 21% of electricity requirements from wind by 2020. However, with only 5.2GW currently in place, the UK will need to double its installation rate to hit its 2020 low-carbon target of 28GW installed capacity.

Sitting in his office at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Hendry admits that the UK has set itself a "very ambitious" target. "There's a massive increase (in wind capacity) required," says Hendry. "Britain needs to rise from being one of the poorest performers in Europe - we're just ahead of Luxembourg. We need to get right up there, making the best use of our resources."

Offshore boost

From the government's perspective, this means huge capacity increases out at sea, where the UK is already the world leader in offshore wind. Yet, despite the government's enthusiasm, the biggest challenge will be facilitating funding for the 33GW offshore envisaged as part of its third and largest phase of offshore development - Round 3.

Shortly after taking responsibility for energy, Hendry forecast that offshore would need £100 billion (EUR114 billion) investment. The Conservative minister says the private sector will need to play more of a role in providing this sizeable investment. "There are an awful lot of investors, including pension funds, who haven't looked at the UK and its potential," says Hendry. "Our job is to make sure they do that."

In addition to making financiers more comfortable with the prospect of offshore wind, the government has also been working with major industrial players such as Siemens and General Electric to set up manufacturing bases in the UK to supply offshore projects.

"We're now trying to follow through with a much more cohesive industrial policy to make sure we secure more of the manufacturing to come here," says Hendry.

One criticism of UK wind policy is that it concentrates far too much on offshore, while local councils have been given more powers to hold up onshore projects. Hendry says there are two solutions to speed up onshore development: giving ministers the power to approve any project over 50MW and, more importantly, allowing communities to earn from the projects.

"If we can get people to be more engaged in the planning application so they can see how (wind farms) can, for example, keep the library open, mend the pavements and provide better services, then they're going to say 'that's a fair exchange'."

Many developers have criticisms of their own. In particular, the government's review of its renewal obligation certificates (ROCs) incentive scheme - with a view to replacing it with a feed-in tariff by 2017 - has been blamed for creating uncertainty in the sector.

"We understand uncertainty is the biggest enemy of development," says Hendry. Attempts to mitigate this include bringing the review forward a year, and a promise to protect ROCs on projects built by 2017.

One area where there is likely to be little change is in the UK's nuclear policy, despite this year's tsumami in Japan and the deterioration of the Fukushima plant. Hendry is still adamant that nuclear has a part to play in the UK's aim to drive down carbon emissions.

EU climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard recently commented that renewables could furnish all of the EU's electricity needs by 2050. As the UK has the largest wind resource in Europe, it would be expected to play a large part in achieving this. But Hendry is far from enthusiastic about her aims.

"We have to be clear about how we're going to meet targets," he says. "I think it's easy for politicians to set a target and not explain how they're going to get there."

Instead, Hendry says the government is focusing on 2020. In terms of how the UK is going to hit that, Round 3 and, therefore, wind, is likely to play a leading role.

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