Three big projects this year and lots lined up -- Britain and Ireland offshore

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For a country with a long maritime history, it is perhaps fitting that the UK should have spent 2008 cementing its position as the world's leading country in offshore wind power generation, a title it actually won by a small handful of megawatts in 2007, but did not lay claim to in deference to Denmark's counting a few turbines as "offshore" that are located on marshland far from the coast and on harbour property. All doubt about who should bear the offshore crown was erased last year with the part-commissioning of Centrica's Lynn and Inner Dowsing wind farm off the east coast of England, which pushed Britain well past even Denmark's official 423 MW total to end the year with 573 MW of offshore wind in operation.

As the rate of installation in British waters begins to ramp up, this year looks to be the best yet. At last ending the UK's track record of installing just one major project a year, 2009 should see the completion of the final 25 MW of Lynn and Inner Dowsing and the commissioning of three further wind farms, Rhyl Flats, Robin Rigg and Gunfleet Sands, to bring a further 403 MW online.

Offshore work is also due to begin this year on two projects from the UK's second round of larger offshore developments, the 300 MW Thanet wind farm in the Outer Thames Estuary and the 500 MW Greater Gabbard project off Suffolk in the east of England. In November, both projects underwent a change in ownership to bring in greater amounts of utility money to complete them. RWE Innogy bought a 50% share of Greater Gabbard and Vattenfall of Sweden increased its presence in the UK offshore market by buying Thanet from hedge fund Christofferson Robb and Company -- just two months after acquiring the 108 MW Ormonde project off north-west England.

In summer 2009, Denmark's Dong Energy expects to start work on the first phase of its 450 MW Walney project in the Irish Sea off Cumbria. The project is tipped for Siemens technology, although Dong's Andreas Krogh says that negotiations for turbine supply are ongoing, with its chosen technology partner to be announced by June.

Nearly 2000 MW of offshore wind power gained building permits during 2008, bringing UK consented offshore capacity awaiting construction to 3600 MW. A further 1420 MW is in the permitting pipeline awaiting a government decision.

Progress on the policy front is spurring development activity and attracting foreign investors into the British offshore scene. Making its entrance into the market last year was Abu Dhabi's Masdar Fund, which after an alleged wobble a couple of months back, now insists it is committed to its 25% stake in the 1 GW London Array project off the south-east coast. Part of the attraction of the UK is the promise of additional financial support for offshore wind generation under the national Renewables Obligation legislation. Towards the end of 2008, the Energy Act became law, giving offshore wind generation 1.5 renewable energy certificates (ROCs) for each megawatt hour produced compared with just 1 ROC/MWh for onshore wind.

Also during 2008, seabed owner the Crown Estate fired the starting gun for the third round of offshore wind farm licensing. Interest was high, with 96 British and overseas companies accepting the "invitation to negotiate" for a slice of the 25 GW up for grabs in nine development zones around Britain. A study commissioned by Crown Estate found that the cost of connecting the Round 3 projects could be as much as £10.4 billion.

Ireland joining in

In Ireland, little apparent progress has been seen since 2004 when Airtricity built the country's first 25 MW project of experimental GE turbines at Arklow Bank. But that may be about to change. A year ago, energy minister Eamon Ryan boosted support for offshore wind through a fixed price of EUR 140 per MWh. The price will be index linked and guaranteed for 15 years. This brings Ireland into line with other countries, he said.

"The industry is poised to take off," says Garett Connell of the National Offshore Wind Association of Ireland (NOW Ireland). "We now need more clarification on how the support mechanism will operate and we need to get legislation in place." Connell also praises the government's show of commitment. "While progress is not as fast as we might like, things are definitely moving in the right direction," he says.

Over 2 GW of offshore wind projects are being progressed in Ireland by five developers. Two have consent: 220 turbines with a combined capacity of 1100 MW at Codling Bank off Wicklow being developed by Fred Olsen Renewables and Treasury Holdings; and the second phase of Airtricity's Arklow project totalling a further 500 MW. Three more projects are in the consenting process awaiting a foreshore lease from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: Saorgus's Kish project of around 500 MW on the Kish and Bray banks off Dublin and Wicklow; further north, Dundalk-based Oriel Wind Farm Limited hopes to build a 330 MW project off Louth; and on the other side of the country, Fuinneamh Sceirde Teo is developing 100 MW off Galway, the only project off the west coast of Ireland.

Allocating grid access

The five companies banded together to form NOW Ireland to lobby on offshore issues. The most serious barrier to Irish offshore wind ambitions is grid connection and the lack of transmission capacity, NOW contends. It points out that a number of offshore projects will gain access to transmission wires in Ireland's system of "gates" through which wind projects seeking grid connection are allowed to pass in lots. But major projects such as Codling and Arklow are not part of the gate process. "We need to find some means of bringing these projects to fruition. If we do not manage to do this, Ireland will not meet its targets for renewable energy. In the long term, we will need a separate system for processing grid connections for offshore wind," says NOW.

Increased interconnection with the UK and mainland Europe is seen as key to sustaining a significant Irish offshore wind program. In November, transmission operator Eirgrid lodged an application for consent to build the long-mooted 500 MW East-West subsea interconnector linking Ireland with Wales. If all goes according to plan, it is expected to start operating in 2012. Last year, the Irish and Scottish governments commissioned a study into further interconnection between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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