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United Kingdom

Plenty of prophesies for a bright windy future -- Landmark year for UK

The prospects for wind energy in the UK have never appeared brighter, despite a year of more modest than expected growth in new wind capacity. A new support mechanism for renewables, an increase in the rate of planning approvals and three consents granted for the UK's first large offshore projects in 2002 all contributed to a sense of well-being among the British wind industry.

Projects totalling 525 MW won planning permission during the year, almost exactly the total amount built during the previous 11 years put together, reports the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). "Two-thousand-and two will be remembered as the year that wind energy became the technology of choice," says the BWEA's Nick Goodall. "In a volatile year for established generators, with the nuclear industry struggling, gas prices doubling and the effects of climate change never more obvious, energy companies, politicians and the public have turned to the simplest and most bountiful resource of all -- the wind."

But despite the number of permitted projects outstripping the number of permit refusals in 2002, the British system of physical planning still remains a significant barrier to growth of the UK wind industry, warns Chris Tomlinson, head of planning at BWEA. Many of the planning successes during the year were the results of appeals against refusals, or consents granted by national government for larger projects -- including offshore, he explains. This is not an accurate reflection of what is happening to the bulk of planning applications.

The NIMBY, or not-in-my-back-yard, attitude of planning officials at local government level remains an impediment to the majority of projects, he says. Nearly all applications for building permits in Britain are made to local authorities who have considerable planning powers. Tomlinson, however, is optimistic that new planning guidance from national government -- due to be published in March or April -- will deal with the lack of consistency over decision making in England and Wales. Scotland, by contrast, where new planning guidance was introduced 18 months ago, already enjoys a more positive reception from planning authorities, resulting in a larger proportion of consents for wind farms than in the rest of Britain.

Projects delayed

In a year of almost 20% growth in UK wind energy, some 88 MW of new plant came online -- up on 2001's figure of 66 MW, but well below the BWEA's forecast of 200 MW. These projects will get built, stresses Goodall, albeit later than had been hoped. The reason for the delay is that in almost every case the developer was unable to get a grid connection, he explains. This is mostly down to local issues with the distribution network operators (DNOs). At the heart of the problem is the DNOs' failure to rise to the challenge of connecting ever larger numbers of distributed generating plants to their systems, he says. "They have got no practice at it and they are not motivated to do it."

Nonetheless, the year saw the UK wind industry reach a symbolic landmark as it commissioned its 1000th wind turbine at Moel Maelogan in north Wales. Goodall says that after a slow start, wind energy deployment in the UK is building up speed. "It took us 11 years to get to 1000 turbines, but we're now predicting that the 2000th turbine is likely to be commissioned within two years," he says. "The next 450 onshore turbines already have planning permission, as do the first 90 offshore turbines."

The ten new projects built in 2002 bring the country's total installed wind capacity up to 556 MW. More than 50% of the new plant is located in Scotland, 24% in Wales, 12% in England and 8% in Northern Ireland. Most of the capacity was built under contracts awarded through the UK's previous system of support -- the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) and Scottish renewables obligation (SRO). But three projects totalling 21 MW were built to meet growing demand for green energy, created by Britain's new support mechanism for renewable energy.

The renewables obligation

Indeed, the year's most significant event for the wind industry was the introduction of the renewables obligation (RO) in April. This requires electricity retailers to buy renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) equivalent to 3% of their power in 2002/2003, rising to 10% by 2010. The RO is providing the major impetus for new wind development and, according to BWEA, should lead to a twenty fold increase in wind capacity by 2010. Meantime, with the present acute shortage of renewable energy, power retailers are competing fiercely for the limited number of ROCs available, pushing up the earnings on green power.

Little wonder, then, that electricity companies are increasingly finding wind energy an attractive business to be in. Nearly all Britain's major electricity retailers or their parent companies are now actively developing wind energy projects, the only exception being British Gas Trading. Around 75% of total installed UK wind capacity is owned by just three electricity companies; National Wind Power (a subsidiary of major retailer Innogy), ScottishPower and PowerGen. Newcomer London Electricity Group acquired two north of England wind clusters during 2002 and is already developing two offshore wind farms.

Meanwhile, Scottish & Southern Energy, which is already the UK's leading renewables generator with its existing large scale hydro projects, plans to invest around £200 million in wind energy. It commissioned its first wind farm during the year -- a 13 MW project at Tangy on Kintyre -- as one of the first customers of Vestas Celtic Energy. Vestas' new factory at Machrihanish on Kintyre opened for business in 2002 and is the first wind turbine manufacturing plant to be set up in the UK for 20 years.

BWEA predicts an accelerated rate of new wind installation over the coming years, with over 300 MW scheduled for construction in 2003, and a further 600 MW in 2004.

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