Europe's green deal on hold while 'the worst turbines are on the best sites'

WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson has argued for a massive expanse in the repowering of onshore wind farms as the only conceivable way of meeting the European Union's goals for the power switch from fossil fuels to renewables

WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson: 'Current rates of deployment will not deliver the green deal'
WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson: 'Current rates of deployment will not deliver the green deal'

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By 2050, the European Commission envisages half the bloc’s electricity will be sourced from wind power.

According to the Commission’s scenarios, getting there means increasing onshore wind from 180GW to 750GW, and offshore wind from 22GW to 450GW, an overall eight-fold increase in capacity.

For WindEurope, the wind industry association, the figures represent a 30-year marathon. 

To make it manageable, CEO Giles Dickson says, the industry needs to add capacity every year in 30GW legs.

So far, however, European countries are only installing half of that, and that was before the disruptions of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Will it be enough?

“The simple answer is no,” said Dickson. “The current rates of deployment will not deliver the green deal.”

According to Dickson, success relies on simpler permit processes for new offshore projects and souping up old onshore wind farms that are nearing the end of their lives. 

Onshore

As onshore wind farms have an expected life of 25 years, many existing turbines will need to be replaced before mid-century.

“So hardly any of the 180GW standing today will still be standing in 2050”, said Dickson. But WindEurope wants to go beyond replacing old capacity.

As Dickson sees it, there are significant gains to be made by increasing capacity and efficiency. For him, “the transition can’t be linear – we don’t want an eight-fold increase in the number of wind turbines  there are more efficient ways to work”.

What results is WindEurope’s argument for ‘repowering’. In general, this will mean larger turbines in smaller numbers, says WindEurope.

“Because the technology has advanced in the last 30 years, you can do so much more with the same amount of space,” said Dickson.

At the El Cabrito wind farm in Spain, 15 new wind turbines generate the same power as 90 small turbines made in 1993. Dickson says this is an extreme case – “as a general rule, repowering means you can reduce the number of turbines by just over a quarter, but the electricity output is three times greater”.  

However, Dickson predicts hurdles ahead for the repowering effort. The growth of houses close to existing wind farms and an increase in protected natural areas reduces the possibility of repowering some farms. 

Some governments, such as Italy, have banned repowering wind farms until ten years after they have finished receiving feed-in tariffs.

“You can understand why they might want to do that,” Dickson said, it is a method to eke the most from a public funding investment before upgrading it.

The irony, as Dickson sees it, is the first wind farms were built on some of Europe’s blowiest real estate. “It means we are persisting with some of worst turbines on some of the best wind sites,” he says, “and that comes at a cost to society in the long-run”. 

Offshore

‘Think long-term’ is Dickson’s plea when it comes to offshore projects and their permits. Returning to the ‘clean energy for all’ figures, offshore wind sites need to increase from a current 22GW to 450GW by mid-century to meet demand.

Meanwhile, under the new Maritime Spatial Planning directive, member states are now setting out plans for the next six years.

For Dickson, six years is too short. “How do you factor in those goals in the next 30 years when you only have to think about the next six?” 

His second criticism of maritime spatial planning is the ‘silo’ approach of many member states, where areas of the sea are preserved for exclusive use by fishing, military, nature reserve, or wind power.

According to WindEurope, the silo approach means that 60% of the North, Irish and Baltic seas and northern Atlantic is out of bounds to wind projects.  

According to Dickson, for wind power to reach its potential, there needs to be a move towards multiple uses of sea areas.

"We are happy for fishermen to... use the same area,” he said, “and there is also scope for sharing space with military activity."

"Plus, it’s worth bearing in mind that the larger the turbines become, the more spaced apart they are." Some now have a space of one kilometre between them. 

Investment

Dickson hopes easing permit regulations in member states will increase investment. Last year saw the lowest volume of new investments in wind power since 2014.

Though Dickson noted investments have maintained a steady and healthy increase, it needs to be steeper.

On top of that, WindEurope predicts Covid-19 will knock back this year’s installations by 30%. A loss, Dickson warned, that will be difficult to recuperate immediately in 2021. 

For Dickson, the recent setbacks mean it’s all the more crucial to continue investing and that the commission encourages member states to keep the industry competitive.

He wants to see governments “put auction schemes in place” to ease financing.

“Some member states might look at the cost and think, 'it doesn’t need public financial support anymore', but if everyone does that, the costs of installation begins to rise.”

First published on Ends Europe

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