Winning over hearts and minds

A growing sense of self-confidence characterised Britain's wind industry as it gathered for its annual conference at Brighton in October. Some 500 people came together at the Brighton Centre to do business, catch up on the latest news and, for newcomers, to explore the business potential of the wind industry. With its theme of "deep green power," the twenty-fourth conference and exhibition of the British Wind Energy Association was more a reflection of a maturing energy industry on the threshold of large-scale delivery, than one still battling to make its place in the energy market.

The British wind power community's 24th annual gathering welcomed many new faces and registered a new level of political goodwill towards seeing the industry succeed. Barriers to development remain, but strategies for their removal are winning support from non government organisations

A growing sense of self-confidence characterised Britain's wind industry as it gathered for its annual conference at Brighton in October. Some 500 people-the largest attendance ever-came together at the Brighton Centre on the south coast resort's seafront to do business, catch up on the latest news and, for newcomers, to explore the business potential of the wind industry. With its theme of "deep green power," the twenty-fourth conference and exhibition of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) was more a reflection of a maturing energy industry on the threshold of large-scale delivery, than one still battling to make its place in the energy market.

BWEA chairman David Still said the industry is set for a rapid increase in capacity. He pointed to over 500 MW of projects already with planning consent and waiting to build, and 1500 MW of other projects in the planning system, including five large offshore wind farms. "By 2010, more than 8000 MW could be installed in the UK, both onshore and offshore-some 8% of UK electricity generation," he said. "This is not enough. We need a 2020 target to maintain momentum, to maintain confidence of the manufacturing industry to invest in facilities and jobs, and to maintain the confidence of the financial community to invest and lend to projects."

Offshore wind was the hottest topic at the conference, but, as in past years, the barriers of the consents process and objections from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and aviation interests still figured prominently throughout the event. Cutting across all issues was the recognition of the need to win the hearts and minds of the public. Alan Moore from conference sponsor National Wind Power set the scene. Pointing out that the greatest barrier to UK wind development remains the issue of gaining planning permission for wind energy projects, he stated: "The key to unlocking those planning consents is hidden away in the hearts and minds of the general public."

Offshore kick-start

Energy Minister Brian Wilson concentrated on these themes in his address to delegates via a video link from the Labour Party's annual conference in Blackpool. In a boost for UK offshore wind, he cleared the way for the country's first large scale offshore projects by announcing £20 million of capital grants to be split equally between Powergen for its wind farm off Norfolk, and National Wind Power for a wind farm off the north Wales coast. "I have increased the funding from £14 million to £20 million in this first round to ensure that both these projects can proceed without delay, and give the whole process the kick start that it needs," he said.

Turning to the thorny issue of the long running conflict between some proposed offshore wind farms and objections by the MoD, Wilson said: "Defence has probably been characterised a little unfairly as a major blockage to the development of offshore projects. I certainly don't want any polarisation of relations with the Ministry of Defence. It is more important that we work together to overcome these difficulties."

Wilson launched new guidance for developers on where to locate their wind farms to avoid interfering with military and civil aviation operations. "We are rich in wind power, but being a small island we are relatively short of space, and it's perhaps inevitable that there are competing pressures on how that space should be utilised," he explained. "So it's not only the MoD that we have to contend with; the civil aviation sector continues to expand; there are more airports and expansion of existing ones."

The Wind Energy and Aviation Interests guidelines are the first fruits of a collaboration between the BWEA, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the MoD. "I don't want to claim that the guidelines represent a solution to the challenges of finding a way in which the future development of wind energy can coexist with civil and military aviation interests." What they do offer is an insight into how the MoD and Civil Aviation Authority assess proposals for wind farms and this transparency is a valuable step forward, said Wilson.

This cross-government approach is also needed to deal with the foremost issue facing the wind industry-the site permitting system under planning law, said Wilson. "The planning review that is going on at the moment has to come up with some changes that make projects more deliverable and make it less easy for relatively small single interest groups to delay or ultimately block projects." There is a widespread and general support for renewables, he added. The great majority are not hostile to wind power, just a very active and vociferous minority who are not going to be persuaded, he said.

Wilson also advised the industry not to underestimate the role of offering tangible benefits in winning hearts and minds of communities. He pointed to the lack of opposition to proposed wind projects in some areas of Scotland where under crofting law, local residents stand to gain a share in the economic benefits. "If all that communities are getting out of developments is a change in their view, then or course a lot more people are going to object; there is not going to be a strong counter argument. But if they are genuine stakeholders who are going to get tangible benefits not just on an individual basis, but on a community basis, that swings the argument."

From the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Graham Wynne challenged Moore's assertion that the wind industry is starting to win the public affairs battle. "I don't think you are; I don't think we are," he said. In the RSPB's magazine, the subject that draws the most flak from readers is climate change and renewables-in particular wind, he explained. "We have all got an awful lot to do to sell the proposition."

Wynne strongly rebutted some accusations that the RSPB was anti-wind. "The headline level, no caveats: the RSPB supports wind power," he said. But he warned: "It is not justified to introduce a technology to tackle one set of environmental issues if in so doing it impacts badly on another set." Offshore wind has the potential to be the most benign form of energy generation as long as it is rolled out in an intelligent and sensitive way, he said. "If the potential downsides are trivialised, we might get a nasty wake-up call in ten to 20 years time. And in trivialising them we fuel the ingrained scepticism that exists within a vocal, well-informed, well-connected minority of the population."

Wynne called on the industry and government to start work urgently with non-government organisations, including RSPB, on producing a strategic environmental assessment to inform wind farm location and design. He stressed that the current deficiency of environmental data was not the fault of wind developers, and criticised the government for failing so far to initiate the work that would enable rapid roll-out of offshore wind development. "I promise you that if we take the absolute minimalist approach [to environmental assessment] it will slow us down in the long term, he said. What was needed was for DTI and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to "thrash out who's going to put things right, over what time period and who's going to pay for it. But I think there's a lack of political will."

The wind industry has funded some £250,000 of research so far through the deposits of developers in the first round of offshore site licences, reported Frank Parrish from the Crown Estate-owner of most of the UK territorial seabed. "I am clear that we need more money to follow on from that." The Crown Estate is willing to contribute money from rent that will flow as the industry builds up, he said. He called on wind developers to join in leading the government in the right direction. "The industry should show its own credentials and not just rely entirely on government to take the lead," said Parrish.

Refusal rate still high

The upturn in the number of MW that have gained consent over the last year may appear to suggest that planning is becoming less of an issue for the industry, said the BWEA's new head of planning, Chris Tomlinson. Nearly 550 MW are consented and waiting to be built. However, he pointed out that the figures are skewed by some consents being granted later than expected-this year instead of last year-and by approvals for some large scale projects. He added that the overall rate of refusals continues to rise.

A look at the breakdown of consents for the different countries in Britain is more revealing, he said. Tomlinson showed that the approval rate since January 1999 by local authorities and the devolved parliaments were 93% for Scotland, 61% for England, and a mere 13% for Wales. When consents granted by the government for projects of over 50 MW and the results of appeals are included, the approval rate rose to 94% for Scotland, 64% for England and 61% for Wales. The difficulty securing consent for wind projects in Wales has led to fewer new applications to build wind farms there, he said.

Rob Forrest of the Scottish Renewables Forum warned that continued high rates of consents for Scottish projects cannot be taken for granted. "Planning and the environment is not a done deal in Scotland. We have a huge success story so far, but we are about to hit the planning system with orders of magnitude more and we have to wonder how it is going to cope."

From the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is responsible for planning issues, Alan Gray pointed out that over the last decade, 89% of all renewable projects in England and Wales had gained planning permission, in line with consenting rates for all other types of development. But the success rate for wind energy projects was far lower at about 50%, he said. Government is trying to encourage a complete change in the culture of planning. "A key factor is community involvement," said Gray. "If we are to move away from an adversarial notion of planning to a more consensual approach, we need to get strong community engagement on the front end."

Tomlinson added that the MoD and aviation authorities still pose a significant threat to wind energy development. They are objecting to more than 50% of applications, he claimed. Nigel Peace from the DTI added that the MoD and CAA must not to be dismissed by the wind industry. "They have real concerns," he said.

There is no guaranteed way of mitigating the effect wind turbines have on airport radar, said Andrew Gibson from the Airline Operators Association. "So we will always adopt a precautionary approach; it would be irresponsible to do otherwise," he said. "Airports are more concerned about wind turbines than anything else at the moment. They are running scared." He believed that ultimately there would be a technical solution to the problem. But in the meantime, developers are not submitting rigorous enough assessments of the impact of their proposed wind farms.

The spacious Brighton Centre comfortably accommodated the largest ever UK annual wind conference exhibition with some 50 exhibitors. Of the 18 first-timers, most were offering consultancy or engineering services. The banking, insurance and legal sectors made a stronger than usual showing with five first-time exhibitors. Also making its debut at a British conference was German turbine manufacturer DeWind, which was bought earlier this year by the British FKI group and now manufactures wind turbines in England.

Over 25% of exhibitors were targeting the offshore market. Newcomer Trinity House was delighted with the level of interest in its meteorological data buoy-a first step in collecting offshore wind and weather information.

Opinion on this year's BWEA24 was overwhelmingly favourable. "There is a real buzz here," commented John Buckley of the DTI. "People are not only hoping to do business, they are expecting to do business." Indeed, one of the main reasons for many to attend the conference was to network and bring the chequebook. Signs of business being conducted were everywhere, with earnest discussions taking place on exhibition stands, in the exhibition hall's seating area and in the corridors. As another conference veteran observed: "There were more deals being struck than ever before."

Alan Moore from National Wind Power summed up: "The overall mood of the conference signalled a clear vote of confidence in the future of the UK wind industry."