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Energy gets a second wind

Wind generators say they can meet a large part of the UK's 10% renewable energy target - if they can beat the planners. Diarmaid Fleming reports.

Wind turbines contribute a tiny 0.4% of UK power - by Christmas there will be 553MW of wind capacity connected to the grid, enough to keep perhaps 350,000 homes lit and heated. But around 25 schemes are due to be built on land and offshore in 2003, providing a further 400MW of electricity - 80% up on existing output. By 2005 power supplied by wind turbines is expected to surge to around 3GW.

Six of the UK's most active wind energy developers surveyed by industry body the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) reckoned they could meet between 3% and 8% of electricity demand by the end of 2010, based on their current plans.

Wind energy technology has reached maturity in the last few years, making for fairly standardised construction and good returns on investment, says BWEA chairman and general manager of Amec Wind, David Still. Amec is expecting to recoup the £30M capital cost of a new 50MW installation at Redcar, Teesside, within seven to eight years. Foundations, masts and rotor blades for future projects will probably be sourced in the UK. And the UK is starting to compete with Scandinavian and German manufacturers on production of turbines as well.

Regulatory rather than technical difficulties pose the greatest challenge to development of the UK wind power industry, the BWEA contends. Chief of those difficulties is the planning system. People simply do not want turbines in their back yards.

The government's Policy & Innovation Unit stated the problem baldly: 'Because of their size, most renewable energy planning applications are considered by local authorities, unlike larger energy projects that are decided on by the secretary of state.'

The government has had some local successes in smoothing the passage of onshore projects through planning process, by leaning on local authorities, says Still. But a more thoroughgoing overhaul of the consenting process is urgently needed if the onshore wind sector is to expand with any certainty.

Meanwhile, plans to realise a first round of offshore wind farms are marching ahead. Eighteen schemes were approved early last year by the Crown Estate, which holds the title to the sea bed in UK coastal waters.

Two 60MW schemes involving 30 turbines each, at Scroby Sands in East Anglia and North Hoyle in north Wales, have already received planning consent and eight are being considered by the Department of Trade & Industry .

Detailed site investigations, design and procurement for all 18 schemes lies ahead, says Still.

But if things go well, he believes they will be up and running by the end of 2006, adding somewhere close to 1.08GW to the national grid - power enough for close to 700,000 households.

Wind power developers are now waiting with bated breath for a government statement setting out its future strategy for offshore wind power.

The BWEA is calling for a new consenting regime for offshore wind farms, and says grants to enable construction in deeper water may be needed. It also wants new legislation to allow development outside the UK's 22km territorial waters limit.

Government intervention may be needed to overcome difficulties in securing grid connections, as well as dealing with military and civil aviation objections at planning stage which the BWEA says are often 'unfounded'.

INFOPLUS www. bwea. com www.

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