United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Offshore support and onshore action

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The British government's announcement of a major boost for offshore wind energy stole the show at this year's national wind energy conference. Indeed, the prospects for offshore wind power stations proved a recurring theme throughout the three days of the 20th annual conference of the British Wind Energy Association, held September 2-4 at Cardiff University of Wales.

An afternoon devoted to offshore wind on the second day proved the biggest draw of the conference. It was standing room only in the university's chemistry lecture theatre as delegates flocked to learn more about the technology and logistics of developing wind farms out to sea. The audience even outnumbered those attending the first morning's keynote speech by energy minister John Battle when he announced new government support for offshore wind (story page 21). The BWEA reports that many delegates signed up to attend just the offshore session, including several individuals from companies investigating the business opportunities on the new UK offshore frontier.

Looking ahead 20 years, Peter Musgrove of National Wind Power predicted that by 2018, most wind development activity in the UK is going to be offshore. Wind farms will be built in water depths greater than 20 metres and turbines will be rated at 10 MW or more with rotor diameters of at least 150 metres, he said.

The market for offshore turbines will be the first wind energy market that is unconstrained except by technical requirements, believes Andrew Garrad from consultants Garrad Hassan & Partners. "We can have machines that are as big as we like, we can have them going as fast as we like, they can look ugly if they need to, they can have any number of blades," he said. Public acceptance will be less of an issue, he claimed. His view was not shared by all. A Welsh Nationalist Member of Parliament, Plaid Cymru's Cynog Dafis, was less sure. "We can see exactly the same opposition when we move offshore -- it has already been threatened," he said.


The conference program overall was leaner than last year's. It concentrated on the issues facing the wind industry in the UK today, with sessions dedicated to planning, exports, technical innovations and public relations.

John Battle set the upbeat tone. As well as his announcement on offshore -- that nearly all the delegates had been primed to expect -- he affirmed that the contribution of land based wind will continue to grow until it makes a "sizeable contribution" to meeting the government's 10% target for renewable generation. He pledged to back the industry to ensure there are no barriers.

Meanwhile, growth in wind energy depended on developers themselves, he warned. He urged them to demonstrate high standards of environmental performance and to consult widely within local communities on their project proposals before bidding for a NFFO contract. "Can we get ourselves rooted more in local communities so that we don't meet opposition at the planning stage?" he pleaded.

Turning to the next round of support, NFFO-5, Battle reported that the degree of interest had been "magnificent" : 119 wind energy bids had been received. "I have been most impressed by the extraordinarily low prices which reflect the seriousness of the bids, as well as taking the industry towards a position where onshore wind energy can compete in the open market against any other energy source." A good proportion of the bids are for small projects. "I hope that the practice of community ownership can be developed and become more lively within the NFFO-5 order."

Most in the audience were encouraged by the offshore announcement and the Minister's positive noises. Others were less impressed. "He said nothing," said one delegate. His sentiments were echoed by Liberal Democrat energy spokesman, Andrew Stunell. "There has been a lot of good talk, but there hasn't been very much action." Energy policy in the UK should come within the ambit of the Department of the Environment, not the DTI, he added.

Stunell called for a longer term approach to energy needs. "By the time any post Kyoto policies start to produce results, we will be half-way through the 20 year timescale from 1990 to 2010." Decisions are needed now on energy needs for 2020, 2040 and beyond. "We must see clear national targets for the share of energy to be provided by renewables, decade by decade to match or to better the best of any other EU nation." Over the next 50 years, fortunes are going to be made from renewable energy. Who is going to make the money and from whom? he asked. "Are they sitting in this room, are they sitting in Copenhagen or, irony of ironies, are they sitting in the United States of America?"

Wales in aspic unwanted

The conference's venue in Cardiff, Wales' capital city, focused attention on how changes to the Welsh constitution are likely to improve the prospects for renewable energy in the principality. Elections in May 1999 -- for the first assembly in Wales for hundreds of years -- will give the Welsh people more of a say over their affairs. Sustainability will be placed firmly on its agenda, promised Dafis. He pointed out that the National Assembly will have an obligation to promote sustainable development. "What this means is that the assembly is going to have to draw up a sustainable strategy for Wales -- something the Welsh Office and its ministers have so far refused to do." The strategy could hardly have a more crucial component than wind, he added.

But he warned against trying to preserve Wales in aspic "like one great National Park" . The beauty of the Welsh landscape -- most of it modified by man anyway -- is just one component among many, he reminded. "Considerations such as biodiversity, resource depletion, pollution, acidification and Wales's contribution to climate change are more significant than landscape preservation."

Dafis hoped the Assembly would use its extensive planning powers to improve the planning climate for proposed renewable energy schemes by taking account of the sustainability of planned economic activity. "I would propose a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the countryside rather than the kind of presumption against that is so inhibiting at the moment." He condemned members of parliament who jump opportunistically onto bandwagons of opposition to wind energy developments. "From experience, I can vouch for the fact that standing up to opposition groups carries few political ill effects, and in fact constitutes a plus factor."

The technical side

Technical papers -- other than on offshore developments -- were telescoped into a single morning session. This mirrors a mood within the BWEA that the most pressing issues are concerned with non-technical barriers to development. As one of the few UK manufacturers present remarked: "This conference reflects the fact that this is a developer's country -- not a manufacturer's country."

But Andrew Garrad affirmed that public reaction to wind energy is much more of a constraint than the technology. There are no longer any two bladed machines being built in the UK -- not because of cost or technical problems, but because people do not like the look of them, he claimed. During his canter through engineering developments over the last 20 years, Garrad drew attention to some areas for potential concern. He warned that the design process is in danger of being prescribed by the requirements of certification and standards. The framework must not dictate the technology or stifle innovation, he said.

More controversially, he considered whether a higher degree of failure should be allowed. Is the wind industry closer to aerospace or the motor industry? he asked. "Should we be looking at reducing some of the margins in design to allow cheaper machines, but accepting a level of failure?" It is a stupid thing to do to design a machine which will last for 50 years when you only need it to last for 15, because you pay for that."

Garrad also criticised the low levels of research and development into wind turbine design. The next generation of machines is likely to be just an evolution of the old ones, he said. The depth of innovation is low, while the speed of innovation is maybe dangerously high; perhaps the industry is moving too fast to upgrade its wind turbines from 600 kW to 2 MW, he suggested. R&D funding for wind is minuscule compared to conventional sources of energy or established industries, he maintained. "If we are going to be big players, we have got to sort this out."

His concern about levels of funding for wind R&D was echoed by consultant David Milborrow who pointed out that worldwide R&D funding on wind was only half that allocated to photovoltaics, despite wind turbine sales -- by capacity -- being some ten times greater than PV. Moreover, he argued, wind R&D gives good value for money since it is repaid by corresponding savings in costs. Recent American data shows that the cost of research into PV is over seven time the corresponding savings.

The public and wind

The issue of public acceptance was yet again a major preoccupation. Crispin Aubrey, editor of WindDirections, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) magazine, pointed out that while people understand that global warming is a problem, they do not always see how it might affect their immediate environment, or associate wind energy with being part of the solution. Jeff Stevenson from EPCAD consultants advised that instead of focusing on the landscape and visual arguments, developers should be more positive about the environmental benefits of their schemes. But he detected a shift towards giving benefits a higher profile.

There is still a big gap between the perception of wind energy and the reality that it is a serious business, stated Christophe Bourillon of the EWEA. The industry should ensure that governments and policy makers are informed about the progress that wind energy has made. "We must stop talking to ourselves, we must start talking to the outside world," he admonished.

Earlier John Battle had also told the industry it needs to go out and win public support. "Win advocates who are not exclusive to the wind energy industry itself," he urged. Problems with public acceptance -- tied in with difficulties over planning -- figured prominently in Battle's speech. He admitted to being worried by the high proportion of planning failures and the level of lobbying against wind energy. He is to meet soon with Michael Meacher, the environment minister, and minister for planning Richard Caborn to address the problem. "We need to ensure planning issues do not debilitate the further encouragement of onshore wind development. It is absolutely crucial to get a co-ordinated policy within government so that we can campaign and explain the need to meet our targets, and organise government departments to ensure that policies are lined up."

He revealed that his renewable energy review concludes planning and development control issues must be tackled head on. Moreover, the review advises that the government's strategy must address how to balance national environmental benefits against local impacts. "The role of renewables in Agenda 21 policies could be examined together with the merits of local targets," he said, referring to local policies for implementing the Rio agenda.

The subjective element

One of the clearest messages to emerge during the planning session was that the outcomes of public inquiries into wind farm applications too often rest on whether the planning inspector likes wind turbines. As the decision maker, the inspector's views on landscape and visual effect are central in probably all inquiry decisions, said Stevenson. Developers have to be as objective as possible in their presentation of the environmental effects and benefits, but "subjective opinion ultimately prevails."

This prompted one delegate to later pose the heretical question: why should developers bother going to the expense of assembling a costly gravy train of experts if, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the whim of a planning inspector?

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