And, at last, UK plc is seeing some glimmers of benefit from wind as companies begin to announce significant investments in anticipation of a bonanza ahead.
Three projects were completed in 2009: Centrica's Lynn and Inner Dowsing wind farms off Lincolnshire on England's east coast with a combined capacity of 194MW, and RWE's 90MW Rhyl Flats project off north Wales. They bring the total UK offshore wind capacity to 688MW.
The expected completion this year of only two wind farms totalling 352MW - Robin Rigg and Gunfleet Sands - belies current levels of activity in developing up to 45GW of offshore projects. More than 2.2GW of further capacity is in construction and due for commissioning in 2011-2012, 1.4GW is consented and likely to begin construction within 18 months, and over 2GW is in the construction permissions process.
Several projects progressed towards construction after the government announced in April a temporary increase in support for offshore wind to compensate for the effects of the recession and the low value of the pound against the euro. Projects reaching financial closure in 2009/10 will see their support rise from 1.5 Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) to two ROCs for each megawatt hour of output.
In addition, 2009 was a busy year for seabed owner the Crown Estate in paving the way for much larger tranches of capacity to be installed over the next ten years. In February 2009 it allocated concessions for the Scottish offshore round of ten projects totalling 6.4GW. It later announced that it would award licences for a series of extensions to projects built under rounds 1 and 2, dubbed "round two-and-a-half". And in January this year it announced concessions for nine large development zones around the UK that could lead to 32GW total capacity - the world's largest single expansion of offshore wind capacity.
The government's determination to maintain the UK lead in offshore wind is driven by arguably the toughest renewable energy targets of any European country. The UK has to supply 15% of its energy from renewables in 2020, up from 1.3% in 2005. With plentiful wind around the UK's shores, offshore wind is seen as vital in helping deliver the target. A further plus for the government is the prospect of thousands of jobs that could be created by Europe's biggest offshore wind programme.
And according to Gordon Edge, director of economics and markets at the British Wind Energy Association, this may be the year when manufacturing for the wind business begins to take off in the UK. A number of companies have already announced plans to manufacture turbine towers, foundations and gearboxes for the offshore wind sector. "After years of being the basket case of Europe where we don't make any of (the components of wind turbines), I look forward to seeing evidence in 2010 of more UK content coming through," he says.
Indeed, at least one large wind turbine maker is understood to be considering the UK for setting up a manufacturing plant to supply the offshore market. For the time being, however, Siemens has extended its grip on UK offshore wind, securing more than a 90% share of all capacity that moved into construction or signed contracts during 2009. For these future projects it will supply the latest version of its 3.6MW machine, with a 120 metre diameter rotor, an increase from 107m.
Meantime, in Ireland, developers of the five offshore wind projects totalling more than 2GW have seen little movement. Two projects have construction permits but no connection to the grid, while the remaining three have grid connection offers, albeit in some cases as late as 2018-2020, but no permits.
The industry gave only a lukewarm welcome to the government's plan, announced in September 2009, to increase support to offshore wind. The new tariff of EUR140/MWh of electricity produced will be payable over 15 years but will not be index-linked. The National Offshore Wind Association (NOW Ireland) says the terms are not attractive enough to allow Ireland to compete successfully for the limited international pool of investment and technology available.