United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Plans progress for offshore wind farms, flurry of press interest

At least four offshore wind farms are in active planning for British waters -- despite the UK government's official policy that harnessing wind energy at sea deserves no more than a watching brief. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) adopted this position in 1994 when it dismissed the technology as being unlikely to be commercial in the foreseeable future. DTI claimed the electricity would be around twice as expensive as from onshore wind due to higher foundation and transmission costs. All DTI research and development funding for offshore ceased immediately.

Today, however, interest in offshore wind is growing. Electricity generator PowerGen is reporting steady progress on developing its first offshore wind farm and has now applied under the Coast Protection Act to build 25 wind turbines on Scroby Sands -- a sand bank three kilometres off the Norfolk coast.

Meanwhile, three bids for contracts for offshore wind farms have been made under the forthcoming round of the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, NFFO-4. The Wind Company, the UK affiliate of Swedish wind developer Vindkompaniet, is bidding for a 25 MW offshore wind farm off the coast of Cumbria, according to the Swedish end of the operation.

On the other side of the country, a wind scheme planned for one kilometre outside the port of Blyth in Northumberland moved a step forward when it gained approval from the Department of Transport. The developer, Borderwind, built the existing nine turbine Blyth Harbour wind farm and is now collaborating with turbine manufacturer WindMaster Nederland to install two 750 kW WindMaster machines in five metres of water at low tide. The project has a European Union Thermie grant and Borderwind hopes to secure a NFFO-4 contract.

Further south, off the coast of East Anglia, a third bid has been made for an offshore wind farm on a sand bank near Harwich by UK based WindMaster Developments, according to local media reports.

But it was PowerGen's application for consent for its £35 million project that put offshore wind farming into the headlines last month in Britain. Even though news of the plans first broke in October 1995 when PowerGen installed an anemometer mast on the sands to measure wind speeds (Windpower Monthly, December 1995), the latest application occasioned a far larger flurry of media interest as the story was picked up and reported widely in the press and on television. If it goes ahead, it would be the world's largest offshore wind farm. The project is a collaboration with turbine manufacturer Vestas of Denmark, which is to supply the 1.5 MW machines.

PowerGen's David Farrier stresses there is still a long way to go before the project is up and running. He says that work is underway on preparing applications for other consents needed. For offshore projects the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has to be consulted. He also explains the company will shortly be carrying out a seismic survey and has already initiated a wave and scour study. As well as looking at the potential impacts of the waves and sands on and around the turbines, this will examine how the sand bank itself has been moving over the years.

The part of the sand bank where the wind farm would be built lies under up to six metres of water, but is exposed at low tide. Farrier denies the wind turbines would disturb the seals who visit the Scroby sands. He says the machines would be built well away from the area where they bask -- and points out that with regular boat trips from Great Yarmouth bringing tourists out to view them, the seals are already accustomed to human activity.

If development goes smoothly, the wind farm could be constructed in summer 1998, says Farrier. Nevertheless the company is hedging all of its bets by running a parallel application for just 13 turbines on the same site. This has been developed in case the preferred scheme for 25 machines -- the more economic of the two -- is considered too large.

Even if the wind farm is granted consent, PowerGen will still need a power purchase contract. It has applied for a 15 year premium-priced contract under NFFO-4. With an output of 37.5 MW, it is among the largest schemes competing for contracts. But despite its advantages from economies of scale, it is under stiff competition from cheaper-to-build onshore schemes in the NFFO bidding process. PowerGen would like to see a tranche within NFFO-4 dedicated to offshore wind to protect it from the rigours of full competition, similar to that granted to small schemes. But the DTI dismisses any special pleading for offshore wind. It is too late to incorporate changes into NFFO-4, says an official.

Whether all this activity at sea leads the DTI to undergo a change of heart about its "watching brief" designation for offshore wind remains to be seen. But PowerGen's decision to throw its considerable might into the quest to exploit the resource out at sea can only lend credibility to the technology's prospects.

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