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United Kingdom

The route to shore

Laying the sea-to shore-cable connections for up to 33 GW of offshore wind by 2020 -- on time and at reasonable cost -- is the mantra of the moment in British wind circles, as our special report on the UK offshore market, supplementing this issue of Windpower Monthly, reveals. The UK government has backed a competitive tender process as its best chance of success. Companies are being invited to bid for contracts to build and operate the infrastructure needed.

The wisdom of going the fully competitive route is a matter of some debate. It could become a bureaucratic nightmare and is not without risk. In their eagerness to secure contracts, companies may bid unrealistically low prices, or promise build schedules that are impossible to meet. That would leave government dealing with costs overruns and claims for compensation from angry wind farm investors unable to get their production to shore.

Many of the same risks, however, would have remained had the government simply appointed Britain's onshore transmission system operator, National Grid, to build and run the offshore connections. In opening the doors to all comers, the government is inviting innovation and new ideas that may otherwise not have bubbled forth for expert scrutiny. A competitive process also provides a reasonably robust yardstick for what the true costs of this massive undertaking might be, not least a comfort for consumers.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the government's decision, it has been made. The time for debate is done. It is now up to industry to work diligently with the government and energy regulator Ofgem to make the competitive process work, and work well. The devil will be in the detail. The terms of the call to tender for the contracts on offer must be strict, incentives strong, and penalties severe. Effective monitoring of the progress of the tender winners in meeting their licence obligations is crucial. So is having a solid contingency plan in case they look like failing.

These safeguards will be key to ensuring the electricity generated by the UK's fleet of offshore wind farms flows through to the onshore network on time and at fair cost. None of that will even matter, however, if the necessary expansion and reinforcement of the onshore network to accept the flows of offshore electricity does not keep pace. That will be up to National Grid and effective permitting rules -- and it may become the biggest obstacle to the UK fulfilling its legal obligation for 15% renewable energy by 2020.

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