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United Kingdom

Political uncertainty reflected in slow down -- The UK set to pick up again

With just 455 MW of new capacity installed, 2007 was far from breaking any records for the UK. Twenty-nine projects were completed during the year bringing the UK total to 2425 MW. A significant milestone was passed in February when installed capacity reached 2000 MW. Compared with the 14 years it took to reach the first gigawatt, the second was achieved in just 20 months. And despite the 2007 slowdown in the rate of installations, the pace of new build is set to pick up over the next two years.

The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) puts last year's less than impressive performance down to lack of investor confidence. "I do not think it is entirely a coincidence that we have had this market dip at the same time as we had that uncertainty around the renewables obligation," says the BWEA's Gordon Edge, referring to the lengthy consultation that resulted in last summer's government white paper on energy. Until the government published its plans, onshore developers could not be sure they would continue to receive one renewables obligation certificate (ROC) per megawatt hour, he points out. They had feared that, as one of the most commercial renewable technologies, onshore wind would see a reduction in support to help pay for the government's plans to increase financial incentives for more expensive technologies.

Publication of the white paper turned out to be one of the high points of the year for the wind community. Not only did the government confirm 1 ROC/MWh for onshore wind, but it announced its intention to boost support for offshore wind to 1.5 ROCs/MWh, and to increase the RO beyond its current goal of 15% by 2015/16 out to 20% by 2020. ROCs are sold by generators to electricity retailers along with the physical electricity, creating an extra revenue stream. Retailers are obliged by law to acquire ROCs to demonstrate their compliance with a specific green power requirement that rises each year.

The improved conditions mean that more than 570 MW of offshore wind is in construction with another 215 MW on the way (page 104). New offshore build represents 35% of the 1600 MW that is currently under construction. Over 810 MW of this is expected to be completed by the end of 2008. A further 800 MW of large projects is due for commissioning the following year, with 2009 looking set to break all UK records.

Scotland occupied pole position again last year, with over 50% of new capacity located north of the border. In England, the trend towards smaller projects continued, while despite the warm words of the Welsh administration, Wales languished at the bottom of the league with just one small project. Siemens still dominated the UK market last year though its share dropped to 36%. A wider spread of turbine manufacturers than ever before saw Vestas continuing to occupy second place with 25%, a strong presence for Nordex at 20% and Gamesa making its debut into the British market.

All time high

The volume of capacity granted consent during the year reached an all-time high with 2282 MW approved, split roughly 50-50 between offshore and onshore. Yet gaining planning permission continues to be the chief obstacle to wind deployment in the UK. Despite the record for consented capacity, the onshore volume falls well short of the 2200 MW the BWEA flagged up as needing approval in 2007 if projects are to be up and running in time for the UK to meet its 10% renewables target for 2010. Wind is expected to meet the bulk of the 2010 goal, with 6 GW from onshore and 2 GW offshore.

Over 7200 MW of onshore capacity is currently stuck in the planning system awaiting a decision. Many of the applications are for large projects in Scotland which are held up on the desks of Scottish government officials. Edge notes though that over its nine months in office, the new Scottish government does seem to be making some headway in tackling its backlog of permitting applications. And as well as striving for a faster turn-round, they seem willing to take tough decisions, he adds.

Trouble ahead

More worrying was last year's decline in new applications for permits, Edge says. Fewer projects entered the planning system in 2007 than at any time over the past four years. Developers lodged 67 applications for consent totalling 1.3 GW compared with the 2005 peak of 96 applications for 5.3 GW. "We need more than that," he says, if wind power is to meet its share of the UK's new 2020 renewables target. "We have no guarantee that our historic pass rate through the planning system of two-thirds of projects approved is going to continue."

The government's plans announced last year for a new infrastructure planning commission (IPC) to speed consents for large projects in England and Wales will not make one jot of difference, he points out. This is because all the sites in England or Wales that could accommodate projects of 50 MW and above that the IPC will rule on have already been developed or are in development. "We need small projects to be allowed to be called in to the IPC," he says. Local authorities, he explains, continue to ignore government planning advice which states that projects cannot be refused on the grounds of visual impact alone. "Yet that is what councils are still doing -- often against the recommendation of their own planning officers," he says. Existing planning guidance needs to be properly enforced and councillors should be made to understand that if they reject a project contrary to the advice of their planning officers, the application will succeed at appeal.

On the positive side, he does detect a "sea change" in political attitude towards wind. "We have had amazing access and response at a number of government levels," he says. "They are taking it more seriously. So far we have been stuck in treacle mode. I am hoping we are now entering lightning mode."

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