A concerted cry for clearer leadership came from the bowels of Britain's annual wind industry gathering in London last month. With the huge challenge ahead of boosting renewables' share of electricity generation to meet EU targets, the UK needs stronger political commitment to break down the grid access and site permit barriers that still stand in the way of Britain achieving its wind potential, the conference heard.
Despite the industry's palpable frustration, the mood was also celebratory at the 30th British Wind Energy Association conference, which attracted a record 2500 participants. The exhibition was larger, too, with more than 190 companies displaying products and services in a hall which was 80% bigger than last year's venue. A main cause for celebration was that offshore wind power capacity had just reached 566 MW, putting Britain ahead of Denmark at 423 MW as the world's leading generator of electricity from sea breezes. The new capacity means Britain has also reached the 3 GW milestone, the fifth country in Europe to do so behind German, Spain, Denmark, and France, although Italy could yet leapfrog the UK.
In a videoed speech to the conference, Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted the government's commitment to meeting 15% of UK energy supply from renewables by 2020 -- a tenfold increase in just 12 years. By that time, 35% of electricity will come from renewables, up from just 5% in 2007, with three-quarters of it from wind. From just 1 GW of installed wind capacity in 2005, the UK has passed 3 GW, announced Brown. "Over the next 12 years, the North Sea will become to offshore wind what the Gulf of Arabia is to oil production," he added.
Brown foresees a £100 billion market for renewables and around 160,000 jobs. Today's harsh economic climate will not reduce the government's commitment to renewables, he promised. Rather, the investment and jobs created from the move to low carbon energy is one of the drivers that will bring the UK new prosperity.
But many doubt whether the UK's regulatory framework will be shaped to enable the country to meet its ambitious goals. From conference sponsors Renewable Energy Systems (RES), Ian Mays reported that in a recent survey of the country's leading energy experts, nearly 60% said the UK could achieve its 2020 target for electricity. "But only 20% believe that we will," he said. Dysfunctional regulations for getting renewables linked to the grid and the poor functioning British planning system, coupled with wind technology supply chain bottlenecks, were the obstacles standing in the way, according to the experts.
British wind projects do not go through a planning system, they go through a lottery, said Mays. Last year, only 7% of wind applications were decided within the statutory 16 week period, compared to 71% for other major development applications. The misinformed, vocal minority are distorting the democratic legal system. "Legal challenge after legal challenge is used to delay good quality projects." Despite government planning guidance to local councils, they still do not feel confident to approve applications in the face of vociferous opposition -- even if it does not represent the majority view, he said.
RES has built almost 3 GW of wind capacity around the world, but has not built a single wind farm in England for 15 years despite a number of applications, he said. Its latest refusal came only the previous week. "We need robust and clear national policy statements across all sizes of projects and adequate resources to deal with applications efficiently and speedily," Mays insisted.
An equally high hurdle is grid connection. More than 9 GW of renewables are currently waiting to be connected to the grid, Mays said. The regulatory body for the electricity market, Ofgem, could facilitate these connections, "but is not acting with the necessary speed to get us wired up," he complained. What the industry needs is courage, vision and urgent action, "but above all leadership," he added. "The remaining obstacles must be removed and it's in the government's power to do so."
BWEA board director Alan Moore believed the UK would meet its targets. But like Mays, he said it requires leadership right from the top of government to remove barriers. "Without that, there'll be no confidence among the investment community." The creation of the new Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is a step in the right direction, he conceded. "But let's not forget that there are a lot of other departments that impact our industry." These include the defence ministry, environment department "and not least Ofgem," he said. "We need joined up government right across the whole patch."
Outlining the BWEA's response to the renewable energy strategy consultation, Moore explained that the industry believes it can deliver 20 GW of offshore wind by 2020, well beyond the 14 GW the government expects. Onshore wind, too, could exceed the government's expectation of 14 GW of by 2020. But delivery depends on developers receiving faster decisions on planning applications for projects and on speeded up connections of wind projects to the grid network. "In both cases, the industry has been asking for solutions for a long time," Moore pointed out. Now is the last chance for the government to deliver if its targets are to be met, he said.
New energy minister Mike O'Brien pointed out that the government and Ofgem have outlined a package of measures under the Transmission Access Review to improve grid access and make the network "fit for purpose." These are currently out for public comment in a government "consultation" exercise. As well as setting out new rules covering connections for renewables, there are to be new incentives for grid companies to invest in transmission infrastructure. "Taken together, these measures will remove, or significantly reduce, grid access as a barrier to renewable and other generation," he said. At the end of the year the government will be reviewing whether any further measures are needed.
"Consultations and reviews take time and we haven't got time on our side," commented Conservative shadow energy spokesman Charles Hendry. Decisions are needed rather than reviews all the time, he said. "We have to see the government providing greater strategic leadership and decisions."
Hendry added that Ofgem's role needs to be reconsidered. It makes no sense that under current rules National Grid has to connect projects in the order in which they applied, regardless of whether they have planning consent or are ready to move ahead, he said. He noted that parliament's energy bill committee had urged a change to Ofgem's remit to give it a joint primary obligation to consider renewables and push a green agenda.
Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg called for a Renewables Delivery Authority modelled on the Olympics Delivery Authority. This would be charged with meeting the UK's energy targets and removing obstacles in the system such as planning delays and grid access, he said.
Clegg said the UK had wasted the chance to lead in onshore wind and solar. Now it had a huge opportunity in offshore wind. "Let's upgrade our national electricity grid." The existing grid is old fashioned and inefficient and would not meet future demand, he said. "We need to create the infrastructure for a super grid across the North Sea, building interconnectors down from Scotland, to the south of England and then across to the Dogger Bank." This could be developed into a Europe-wide super grid, he said.
Now is not yet the time to invest in European interconnectors, cautioned James Wilde of the Carbon Trust. But when the third round of site leasing for offshore wind development takes off, "that might make a more interesting business case for interconnection with Europe," he said. Round 3 could deliver up to 25 MW of additional capacity and with 8 GW from the first two offshore rounds could lead to a potential 33 GW of UK offshore wind. This could make the UK an exporter of renewable power to mainland Europe, he suggested.
More pressing though is the need for clarity over the rules for transmitting electricity from offshore wind farms to the onshore grid. John Overton from DECC reported that the government and Ofgem are 90% of the way towards resolving the final shape of the controversial competitive regulatory regime for offshore transmission. New entrants will bid for licences to become offshore transmission operators (OFTOs). This process will release £2 billion of investment in new infrastructure for the first two offshore rounds and potentially between £10 billion and £15 billion to connect Round 3 sites, Overton said. Ofgem's Robert Hull added that the competitive process encourages innovation and flexibility.
But Eddie O'Connor from Mainstream Renewable Energy claimed that neither generation nor innovation will be encouraged through competition in providing the offshore wires. It will only achieve the cheapest possible system, not the best, he said. "The long term viewpoint, that hints of vision, is missing here."
Many also wondered whether the onshore grid would be ready to accept vastly increased power flows from offshore wind and other renewables. "We've got to get power from the beach to the super grid," said Moore. "My concern about the grid is how quickly we can do it." Recent history shows that just getting planning consent for a new overhead line takes ten to 12 years, he warned. A clear strategy is needed for a radical re-wiring of the UK grid, said Mays, adding that relying on conventional private sector investment will not get it done. "A long term approach is needed for such a massive infrastructure project."
Mays was just the first of several speakers to demand a change to the remit of Ofgem which puts its responsibility to customers above all other considerations. "What we need is for Ofgem's responsibilities towards long term energy security and government climate change objectives to be placed on an equal footing with its principal objective to protect the short term economic interests of consumers," he said.
From the Renewable Fuels Agency, Nick Goodall agreed. The energy regulator should be providing a very long view for investing more holistically for a much longer term future for the grid, he said. "Ofgem has a set of duties that it carries out now which would need to be radically rethought to enable the type of aggressive thinking in terms of enabling the large scale connections that are required."
In the meantime, National Grid, Britain's system operator and owner of the high voltage wires in England and Wales, stands ready and willing to invest, claimed the company's Ian Cameron. "There is no lack of desire from National Grid to invest more heavily in the grid network ahead of the need for the connections, but the regulatory regime constrains us from doing that." National Grid has been urging the government to give it the responsibility to make strategic investments offshore, but the OFTO regime and the competitive arrangements that are being put in place are constraining the company from doing so, he said.
These grid and planning delays are also impacting the supply chain, warned Mays. With the global shortage of wind turbines, the additional uncertainty created by planning and grid means that British projects go to the back of the queue. "While the rest of the world races ahead with wind power at a growth rate of 30% a year, the UK with its massive natural resource has the potential to get left behind."