United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Optimism fired by political good will

Public recognition by the new Labour government of wind energy's wide popularity in Britain despite the publicity antics of a small anti wind farm lobby inspired this year's annual industry conference to tackle the issue of public perception, the key to the future of wind development in the UK.

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The new wind of optimism sweeping Britain since its change of government in May was in evidence at the UK wind industry's annual conference in Edinburgh. The upbeat tone of the event was due in no small part to the new Labour government's ambitious targets for renewables, to which the wind community is justifiably hopeful of contributing its fair share.

This is particularly true at the British Wind Energy Association's Scottish Branch, which hosted this year's conference, held 16-18 July at Heriot-Watt University. The Scottish wind community is still smarting from its poor showing in the last round of power purchase contracts for renewable energy in March under the previous government -- despite its impressive achievement in driving down the price of its wind energy bids.

The certainty of a further round of Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation power purchase contracts -- NFFO-5 in England and Wales and the third Scottish Rnewables Order (SRO-3) -- only added to the optimism at the BWEA's 19th conference. Yet enthusiasm for the future was also tempered by a pragmatism which led to a concentration on the obstacles to wind development in the UK, such as planning and public acceptance.

Numbers of both delegates and exhibitors were down on previous years, though the organisers stressed that quality, not quantity had been their chief concern. Fewer papers were presented than in recent years, but were of a higher standard overall. Some delegates, though, lamented the relative lack of technical content compared with previous years. The organisers admitted they were disappointed at the shortage of students attending and attributed this to the proximity of the European Wind Energy Association's conference in Dublin in October. "We should guard against this becoming too much of an industry conference. We do need an academic content as well," said Ray Hunter, chairman of the organising committee.

Short and to the point

Nonetheless, "well organised" was the general consensus among conference delegates. The usual format of parallel sessions was abandoned at Edinburgh in favour of a long programme of mostly 20 minute presentations, with no stopping for meals or coffee. The only breaks were to allow for a change-over of speakers between consecutive sessions. Strict adherence to the timetable meant that long overruns -- endemic at many conferences -- were non-existent. The speakers in the early morning sessions may have felt themselves short-changed though, since the sparse attendance bore witness to the 8 o'clock start proving too much for the stamina of most delegates.

With 1998 only just around the corner, liberalisation of the UK electricity market might have been expected to dominate the programme as well as people's thoughts. This was not borne out in practice. Instead, the only presentations to focus on 1998 issues were relegated to the third morning of the conference -- something of an anticlimactic day since the exhibition had been dismantled. Lower numbers in the conference hall apparently also reflected the onset of conference fatigue. Likewise, the financial and economic content was smaller than usual -- and also consigned to Friday morning.

For most, however, the real reason for attending was to meet-up with old friends, renew acquaintances and make new business contacts. There was ample room for this in the spacious exhibition area under canvas outside the conference hall.

Into Battle

Perhaps the conference's biggest disappointment was that keynote speaker, John Battle, Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, failed to turn up -- allegedly due to his fears of flight delays caused by a strike by airline staff. It was left to John Brown from the Scottish Office to deliver his speech. Yet its messages of strong support for wind energy and its attack on the noisy anti-wind minority -- albeit delivered in Brown's deadpan tones -- were music to the ears of its audience.

Wind energy would have to figure prominently if the government is to achieve its target for renewables of 10% of UK electricity by 2010, Brown said on Battle's behalf. But the industry must now make a step change and demonstrate that it can move rapidly to maturity during the next ten years or so. "I recognise that is a tall order. But if we are to achieve the 10%, then I am determined that we do it right."

First of all, a much larger proportion of wind energy projects should be met by British suppliers. Both UK suppliers and overseas turbine manufacturers drew equal criticism from him. Too few component makers had approached turbine manufacturers about their products, he said, while turbine manufacturers stood accused of their lack of response to approaches that had been made. Battle pointed to the huge potential markets at home and overseas. "Investing in renewable energy production can mean reviving our engineering technological base, providing new work and tackling environmental problems at one and the same time."

He sounded a note of caution about rushing to expand offshore. "In my view it is preferable that the wind industry first establish efficient and competitive on-shore wind farms and go on with its international competitors to demonstrate a technical capability to withstand the rigours of the Atlantic and the North Sea, before expanding off-shore." This revealed the DTI's doubts about favouring offshore too early -- and possibly dashes hopes of a separate competitive band for granting offshore schemes power purchase contracts under NFFO-5.

Community spirit

One issue that is key to the future of wind energy development is public opinion, said Battle. All public attitude surveys point to overwhelming local support for wind energy, which increases once the wind farm has been built, he said. "Communities identify with their wind farm as the supplier of their electricity, albeit transmitted via the grid." He turned his anger on the "small but vociferous lobby" that is concerned only with the impact on wind farms on the landscape. "Quite apart from attracting disproportionate media attention, they create an unwarranted difficult climate for future wind development by failing to take a holistic approach to wind energy developments."

Battle concluded by urging the industry to consider only those schemes that are likely to attract public support and that have a reasonable prospect of planning consent. "Be at pains to get across the broader message that environmental impact is but one of three core issues that demand attention: that the local community's interest, and industrial competitive development are also crucial," he said.

Battle's concerns over public opinion and planning issues struck a chord among delegates and re-emerged several times throughout the conference, most notably during the conference debate. It seized on the single question of how best to counter the anti-wind farm lobby -- in particular the tiny but smart-operating Country Guardian group. Opinions were divided. Some were in favour of more dialogue with Country Guardian, others argued this could give the organisation more credibility. "They are not environmental in any sense of the word," maintained David Infield from CREST. "We have to distance ourselves from them; make them appear what they are: manipulators of information at the crudest level."

Catherine Peasley from Dulas Ltd believed it more important to lobby people who are on the fence. "We also need to provide the right sort of information to the people who do support wind power."

Misleading statements from major consultative bodies like the National Trust were a source of concern to Peter Hinson from National Wind Power. He wanted to see closer liaison between the government and its statutory consultees to give them the facts about the renewable energy programme. His colleague John Ainslie suggested the industry should make more use of the "rock solid nature" of information produced by the government. "Ministers are being very helpful and positive at the moment. We have to make sure that key statements are circulated to BWEA members, but also work with the DTI to show that independent government agencies are also putting out the same facts."

Countering minsinformation

Others were worried about the misinformation that appears in letters columns of the press and suggested concerted efforts to counter it. "Every letter counts," said Adrian Lloyd from National Wind Power urging the industry to make its voice heard.

This was not the view of Gordon Mann, former chief planner of Dumfries and Galloway. Letters to the press are not the best way to correct wrong information, he believed. "It just prolongs the debate and gives an opportunity to reply." Meeting people and talking to people yield better results, he said. Giving the conference an insight into what a planner is looking for from wind developments, Mann said that after 30 years as a planner he never ceased to be amazed how rude people get when they are campaigning. "Don't let it get to you," he advised. "Because in the long run the rest of the community will get fed up with it and see through the rhetoric."

Mann reserved some of his fire power for the highly competitive system of bidding under the Scottish Renewables Obligation (SRO). It does not help either developers or planners, he claimed. There is nothing worse for a planning authority to deal with than an application for a site with an SRO contract. "No matter how hard you try to tell the public that planning decisions and SRO decisions are separate, they find it difficult to believe it is not a foregone conclusion." He favoured instead a system of interim approvals for contracts based on an outline submission, to be followed up with a detailed submission once planning consent has been granted.

Similar views were aired by Martin Mathers of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The SRO seemed to have been designed by the previous government to kill the renewable energy industry in Scotland at birth, he said. "To insist that bid price was the only criterion and to encourage bids prior to submission for planning approval is to devise a system designed to maximise effort, and minimise results." This only forced developers onto more exposed -- and often more sensitive -- sites. Mathers suggested a set amount of fixed priced contracts each year to the first bidders with outline planning permission for projects. "Developers would then know what they were dealing with."

The Scottish Office's John Brown was defensive. He refuted Mathers' accusation that developers are driven to the most sensitive sites, and cited Windy Standard wind farm as an example of a good wind regime that is not in a sensitive area. Answering criticisms of the small size of the SRO, he pointed to Scotland's large overcapacity in conventional generation. SRO-2 was always intended to be a small order, he insisted. He called for hard headed realism from developers on the prospects for projects bearing in mind the price signals from SRO-2. The industry also needs to realise that not everyone in Scotland shares its enthusiasm for wind projects, he added. Brown promised there would be an announcement on a further SRO order very soon. "Ministers are aware that wind is the cheapest technology and they will take that into account. But there is going to continue to be intense competition," he warned. "Scotland is rich in renewable resources."

Joining the attack on the NFFO and SRO was Colin Anderson of Scotland based Aerpac UK who shared Battle's concern about the low British manufacturing content in UK wind farms. The government's NFFO policy had failed to promote British manufacturing, he said. He contrasted the UK experience -- which is highly competitive and has a large proportion of utility ownership of projects -- with that in Denmark and Germany where policies have led to a flourishing wind plant manufacturing industry selling to private investors. He concluded that individual or private ownership was the best way to stimulate a home industry.

Anderson pointed out that before electricity privatisation in 1990 there were 20 wind energy schemes in Scotland of which some 75% were privately owned. Since 1990, however, only one wind scheme has been installed privately. All the others were developed under the SRO and are utility owned. "So one effect of SRO has been to suppress a market for wind energy which had seemed to be emerging naturally before privatisation of electricity," he said.

Separate utility market

Anderson suggested the way forward would be to separate out the utility market for wind energy and rekindle the private market. This could be done by encouraging people -- through a non-competitive system of contracts -- to install turbines to displace their own energy. "Therein lies a steady market of the type which emerged in Denmark and seemed to be emerging in this country before privatisation," he said. The kilowatt hour prices are automatically attractive and projects are non-competitive. The policy can be sustained indefinitely -- there is no artificial cut-off. "It is something you can see way into the future. That is what is lacking under NFFO and SRO." This energy displacement market could be stimulated with only minimal changes to existing legislation, he maintained. "But those changes should be addressed if we are really serious about manufacturing wind energy plant in this country."

Despite NFFO's many detractors, several concluded that some form of government mandate is essential if wind is to survive after 1998. Andrew Fellows from Garrad Hassan did not rate highly wind's prospects under any of the options for trading post-1998 being considered by the Scottish Trading Arrangements Group. "I do not see that any of the options are going to make it commercially attractive for either of the Scottish public electricity suppliers to purchase wind generated electricity unless obliged to do so, as under the SRO," he said. Looking from an investment angle, Jonathan Johns from Ernst & Young claimed: "It is the security of sale that is important from a banker's perspective. This is particularly true for small wind projects," he said. "We still need NFFO."

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