Still plenty of barriers to scale

The political will to move wind power into the mainstream of power generation is clearly growing, but until the government recognises that its job is to firmly direct the energy regulator, the Ministry of Defence and the site permitting system, these will all remain serious barriers to Britain's targets for renewable energy

The prevailing mood was buoyant at this year's UK wind energy conference with the industry looking forward to the new British system of support -- the Renewables Obligation -- due to begin in January 2002. Hopes were raised that this would deliver the high levels of UK wind capacity that have so far signally failed to materialise. And the industry is straining at the leash to build some 3500 MW offshore. But barriers persist which could jeopardise delivering on the industry targets. Faults in the British system for planning land use, flawed electricity trading arrangements and objections by the military defence establishment to wind developments need to be dealt with before wind can move out of the margins into the mainstream of UK power supply.

"A more professional event" was the consensus on the 23rd annual gathering of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), held October 16-18 . Significantly, attendance did not suffer on moving the event from the confines of its habitual university location to Brighton's Metropole Hotel -- a move away from academia that was long overdue according to many in the industry. The gradual upward trend in yearly attendance continued; some 350 delegates registered -- the highest number ever, according to the BWEA.

Taking stock of progress, BWEA chairman David Still pointed out that 422 MW of wind installed since 1991 supplies 0.3% of the UK's electricity. "In those ten years we have achieved less than half the capacity installed in Germany in the first six months of this year," he said. Under the Renewables Obligation wind, given its maturity and costs, is likely to account for at least half of the government's target of 10% of UK electricity from renewables by 2010, said Still. But the wind industry should be aiming for 2005 MW from wind by 2005, he announced. "We have calculated that the industry is capable of installing some 7000 MW by 2010, and thereafter able to install at least 2000 MW offshore each and every year." Onshore development can be expected in the low hundreds of megawatts each year, he added.

Government commitment

The government's program of support for renewables amounts to £1 billion pounds per year up to 2010, said Anna Walker from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). "The DTI's overall program of support for energy per annum is £1 billion, so this is the same again just for renewables," she said.

Member of Parliament Gareth Thomas, chairman of the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) urged the renewable energy community to be more ambitious for the funding it needs to develop the industry over the next five to ten years. He called on the government to adopt the target recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution of a 60% cut in UK carbon dioxide emissions over the next 50 years. "If we are going to achieve that 60% reduction ... then we have to significantly step up the contribution from renewable sources, and the key renewable source is wind."

Thomas proposed a sustainable energy agency to provide a coherent focus for the renewable energy industry. Some 16 government departments or quangos are at present involved in promoting renewables, he said. Other countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and the US have already recognised that institutional coherence is crucial if you are to move forward the renewables industry, he added.

IPP industry needed

Huge amounts of investment will be needed to meet the government's 10% renewables target. This will require more than £10 billion up to 2010, said Chris Morris from developer M&N Wind Power. Only the world's largest independent power producers (IPPs) have shown they are able to meet such targets and raise that level of capital investment, he said. These large, mostly US publicly quoted corporations, already dominate global conventional power business. And it will be IPPs who in the long term will move wind power from the periphery into the mainstream power sector.

With its planned long term renewables obligation in place, the UK will look extremely attractive to IPPs, said Morris. They will be able to obtain significant prices for their power, of perhaps over £60/MWh once all the potential income streams are added. Although the UK is unlikely to accommodate a single wind power plant large enough to attract an IPP, a portfolio of geographically diversified projects should be an attractive investment, he said.

Military might

Despite the opportunities for wind, obstacles to its deployment still remain. The most recent issue to threaten the government's targets are the objections by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to wind farm projects in large swathes of the UK mainland and offshore. The conference heard that the MOD had effectively halted an 80 MW wind project in Northumberland. And now, progress has stalled on five of the 18 proposed projects in the first round of offshore wind development after the MOD indicated it will be objecting to the projects. Three of these are on Shell Flats and is near Southport -- all off the west coast of England. The fifth project is off Cromer in the North Sea.

The government, however, appears to be unaware of the ferocity of the MOD's objections, with the DTI's Walker apparently regarding the problem as resolved. "Initial fears that the MOD would provide a ban on developments has actually proved unfounded," she said. But in the most lively session of the conference, MOD representatives maintained they would continue to object to all wind farm projects that they believed posed a threat to pilots. Mark Pickett from Defence Estates, who co-ordinates responses to wind farm applications from the Civil Aviation Authority and different services within MOD, explained: "If we object to a proposal, our main concern is safety." Some of the most contentious locations between the MOD and the wind industry lie in Britain's three tactical training areas, he said.

From the Royal Air Force (RAF) air surveillance, Flynn Reid said she would "only" object to planning applications within 70 nautical miles of an air defence radar or within the radar's line of sight. "I am not particularly concerned about the fact that the wind farm is going to show up on our radar. My particular concern is what happens behind that wind farm in the radar shadow," she said. "It is a bit of an unknown quantity; not many studies have been carried out into the effects of wind farms and radar shadows." A 110 kilometre ban would be devastating for wind power, however. With eight air defence radar operating in the UK -- and up to three more planned -- vast areas of the British landscape are effectively sterilised from development, pointed out Peter Musgrove of National Wind Power. He noted that the number of MOD objections has increased over the last six months.

Pickett and Reid accepted that they took a cautious approach. "We do not want to increase the risk," said Pickett. "There is definite evidence that wind farms do have a consistent effect on radar."

Helen Plowman from Wind Prospect observed that Germany and Denmark, each with large numbers of turbines, did not appear to experience similar problems with their defence establishments. It is an issue that is raised regularly, said Pickett. Other countries are not as stringent as the UK and they would appear to compromise safety more, he said. Reid added that the UK has more interest in air defence due to being an island, its geographical location in NATO and sited on the edge of Europe. But it is the government which is the ultimate arbiter on the issue, she said. "It has to be a government decision. Until somebody says we are going to take more risk on safety in order to get green energy, then I don't think anything will change."

Dialogue has improved between the wind industry, DTI and the MOD under the DTI Radar working group, reported Chris Shears from Renewable Energy Systems. Studies have been appointed or are underway into aspects of the problem, including baseline studies at RAF and civil airport sites, mitigation, and European experience.

Planning polemic endures

Despite the emerging high profile of MOD objections, obtaining site permits under Britain's land use planning laws is still the largest obstacle to wind development, the conference heard. From the government's Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Christopher Bowden claimed that a proportion as high as 89% of all renewable energy projects entering the planning system had gained consent -- but that wind energy proposals were far less successful. Musgrove argued that the statistics do not tell the whole story. "We, the developers, have frequently seen the way the odds are stacked up against us and dropped projects before taking them to a determination. We regard decisions that are made as erratic and something of a lottery and we would love to have clear guidance as to where wind farms would be acceptable."

Updating the industry on activities towards implementing a system of regional targets for renewable energy, Bowden reported that most regions had completed assessments of the renewable resource in their areas. Planning guidance in some regions had already taken into account what had come out in the regional assessments, he said. Bowden also warned: "Developers themselves do have a responsibility in talking to local people and making sure they come up with projects that are not obvious non starters in terms of being inappropriate or badly sited."

From developer Wind Prospect, Euan Cameron explained that his company had been relatively successful in gaining planning permission -- but only after lengthy appeals processes since 1995. He warned: "I cannot see how we can manage to deliver anything very much in a system where we do all the things you rightly say we should be doing in terms of consultation and yet end up with an utterly perverse result."