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United Kingdom

Huge project pipeline but poor record of delivery -- Britain's record year

Two thousand and four proved to be a record year for installed wind capacity in the UK, but followed the pattern of previous years in failing to fully come up to expectations. The nine new projects totalling 190 MW bring total installed capacity to 897 MW. Although a 25% increase over the 154 MW that came online in 2003, last year's development fell far short of the more than 400 MW of capacity projected by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) at the beginning of the year after a survey of its members.

The outlook for 2005 promises to eclipse last year's achievements, with 600 MW from 18 projects already under construction and due for completion this year. Just the capacity already building alone will bring wind's share of UK electricity supply up to 1.5%. Moreover, 96 projects totalling 5000 MW are in the planning system and awaiting determination. If consented, this capacity could meet 5% of UK electricity.

With only about half the expectation for 2004 fulfilled, however, there are still barriers to overcome. Why the delay last year in putting wind turbines in the ground? According to the BWEA, post-planning consent constraints continue to be a problem for developers. Planning approval from local councillors is not the automatic green light for developers to proceed to build. It can take them a further six to 12 months to agree the details of planning conditions with the local authority. The BWEA is calling on government to streamline and simplify the process.

Scotland continues to be the country of choice for many developers. It enjoys the UK's highest wind speeds and, indeed, plays host to some 25% of Europe's wind resource. Its low population density also means that developers can build larger projects and are more likely to obtain planning consent. Over 50% of the 2004 capacity is in Scotland, where the three new wind farms give an average size of 38 MW compared with the average of 4.6 MW for the four onshore English projects. Manufacturer Vestas, operating from its assembly plant at Machrihanish, Scotland, proved to be the most popular choice of turbine supplier, securing over 60% of the year's business (table).

The UK's physical planning process, under which gaining site permits is historically one of the biggest obstacles for UK wind projects, would appear to have been less of a problem for developers during the year. Thirty-three wind projects giving some 800 MW of new capacity were granted consent in 2004, bringing total consented wind power projects in the UK to over 2000 MW. Interestingly, these new consents represent an 83% pass rate.

Chris Tomlinson from BWEA warns, however, that site permitting still represents a significant hurdle for British wind operators. It takes an average of 14 to 30 months to gain consent instead of the 16 weeks it should take, he points out. There is a lack of consistency across the UK. "In some parts of the country, planning is more of a lottery. We see good approval rates in Scotland, but in Wales it is appalling," he says. "Let's not be pessimistic. We have come a long way in the last two years. We now have robust planning policy advice in England to bring us into line with Scotland and we hope that the new planning policy statement for Wales will be similarly robust," he says. The Welsh policy proposal is out for consultation.

The publication of new planning guidance for England, referred to by Tomlinson, was one of the most significant developments for wind during the year. It gives planners and councillors a clearer steer on government renewables policies and targets and calls for regional and local authorities to promote and encourage renewables. The BWEA hopes the English guidance -- and forthcoming Welsh advice -- will lead to more consistent decision making by planners in England and Wales.

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