Siting zone set for beyond the horizon -- Going far offshore

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Belgian government proposals to set aside a 167 square kilometres area for offshore wind energy out of sight of land have been broadly welcomed by the wind business. In the government's new regional planning document for the North Sea, it has named Thornton Bank, a sand bank 27 kilometres off the coast, as marking the landward perimeter of the area.

The zone will be able to accommodate some 2000 MW of wind plant, says the country's "first minister for the North Sea," Johan Vande Lanotte, who together with economics minister Fientje Moerman drew up the plan. That is enough to meet Belgium's Kyoto commitment of 6% of renewable energy by 2010, though reaching the target means the area will have to be fully developed, says the minister.

Filip Martens of C-Power consortium, which is currently developing a 300 MW farm on Thornton Bank, is pleased the government has finally set out its long term vision. "It's not up to the industry to decide what has to come and where, that's up to government," Martens says. "Now we know what is expected of us."

He is sanguine about the technical challenges posed by the proposed site. The actual distance offshore is less important than the proximity of a useable port, says Martens. The sector allocated to Belgian wind can make direct use of Zeebrugge, making it more favourably placed than some wind farms nearer shore, he says.

"Water depths in the area range between 15 to 30 metres, but with projects that are 300 MW in size, no sites are more favourably placed than others. So I wouldn't expect to see a scramble for the best positions," says Martens. Average water depth at C-Power's Thornton Bank project is 15.7 metres, he adds but actual depths range from six to 23 metres. Economies of scale should bring down the cost of foundations to make development this far offshore commercially viable, he believes.

Who pays

With Belgian law silent on responsibility for transmission lines for offshore wind, the real debate is likely to rage around who will pay for wiring up the targeted 2000 MW. "When the national grid was upgraded for nuclear power in the 1970s, everybody paid. Wind should be no exception," says Martens

According to Peter Dellaert of Greenpeace Belgium, Vande Lanotte agreed to this idea in principle last summer when aboard Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship when he was minister of finance. Whether the commitment has survived the government reshuffle remains to be seen.

"The success or failure of the development of wind farms at sea are firmly in the hands of minister Vande Lanotte," says Dellaert. "He certainly has the political clout to achieve a much needed breakthrough and we will support him in making it happen."

Meantime, the Belgian government is interested in working more closely with the Netherlands in developing the wind resources of the North Sea. The exact areas of co-operation are still being discussed, says the office of the Dutch ambassador to Belgium. Collaboration on transmission is one possibility.

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