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Energy review: blowing in the wind

There is growing pressure on the government to boost wind power as it conducts its energy review. Andrew Mylius reports.

There is growing pressure on the government to boost the wind power sector as it conducts its energy review. Andrew Mylius reports.

Battles between wind energy's protagonists and antagonists are fought at a nasty, personal level. Those for and against turbines would be on first name terms if they were not interlocked in so bitter a struggle.

Over a quarter of all letters published in the national press panning wind energy are written by just 16 individuals. At the British Wind Energy Association's (BWEA) annual conference in Brighton last week communications director Alison Hill flashed up a slide naming them: an angry murmur of recognition rippled through the room. 'And one man is responsible for 7% of all letters alone,' Hill said.

Arguments against wind farms are that they are noisy, disturb bird and animal life, ruin beautiful landscapes, destroy tourism, emit hazardous electro-magnetic waves, and provide an unpredictable energy supply. Wind currently supplies just 2.8% of electricity consumed in England and Wales.

Sir Bernard Ingham, former press aide to Margaret Thatcher is founder of Country Guardian - a body opposed to wind farms - and secretary of lobby group Supporters of Nuclear Energy. Ingham has claimed that turbines would have to be erected on every hilltop in the UK if wind energy were to compete with coal, gas or nuclear power.

But wind schemes will have to be realised if electricity suppliers are to meet the terms of the government's Renewables Obligation, which comes into effect on 1 January. By 2010, 10.4% of all electricity in England and Wales must come from 'renewable' sources, including energy from fuel crops, hydro electricity, wave power, solar and wind.

Targets have been set to make sure the energy sector stays on track - by 1 January 2002, 3% of energy must be from renewable sources, rising to 4.3% from 1 April 2003, 5.5% from 1 April 2005 and so on, to 10.4% by 2010. Firms failing to comply will be fined.

Energy suppliers have additional incentives for adopting renewable energy generating technologies. Renewables are exempt from the Climate Change Levy, introduced on 1 April this year. Energy firms are charged 0.43p/kWh for 'non-renewable' electricity supplied to industrial and business consumers. According to Department of Trade & Industry director general for energy Anna Walker the government is committed to ploughing £1bn into developing new renewables infrastructure next year. This comes on top of £39M of capital grants set aside by government for offshore schemes in April this year and a £55M fund for research and development, to be released over the next three years.

And there is demand for more. In its submission to the Cabinet Office Performance & Innovation Unit's review of energy policy, generator British Energy wants the government to set a target of 20% of energy to come from renewables by 2010. Environmental pressure group Greenpeace believes that, with political will, 100% of UK electricity could be generated from renewables within 40 years. DTI under-secretary Lord Sainsbury said last week that the government is looking at renewable energy targets beyond 2010 - the Performance & Innovation Unit is due to deliver its report in December. In all, BWEA estimates that the 'latent' worldwide wind energy market is worth £11bn.

Wind is theoretically well placed to respond to the demand. Generating costs, and therefore supply costs, have fallen by about 40% in the last five years and are expected to drop further, making wind competitive with conventional 'dirty' technologies. The Performance & Innovation Unit estimates that onshore wind power costs will have fallen to between £15 and £25/MWh by 2020. Offshore wind energy will cost £20-30/MWh.

Renewables collectively are at present level pegging with new coal technology, costing between £22.50 and £39/MWh - wind energy is cheaper than solar, hydro and wave. Combined cycle gas turbines, the cleanest fossil fuel generating technology and the cheapest source of electricity available, produce electricity at £20-£25/MWh. Nuclear costs £35-£40/MWh. Neither coal nor gas generating costs account for the impact of greenhouse gases on health and the environment, notes Hill.

Falling wind power prices will be driven by further technical development. Capital costs account for between 75% and 90% of total outlay for wind farm projects. According to the BWEA, turbines account for 64% of this, civils works 13%, and electrical infrastructure and grid connections 14%. The remainder is spent on project management, legal fees, insurance and banking. Design of on-shore and marine foundations, and of turbine towers, has evolved rapidly in the last decade, but further structural refinements are possible, particularly for offshore wind farms. Meanwhile, the size of turbines themselves has been growing rapidly, from only 500KW five years ago to 3MW this year. It is expected that continued innovation will produce turbines with generating capacity of over 5MW by 2005. The more energy a turbine can produce, the lower the cost of that energy.

In the UK there are at present 853 turbines on 60 sites, producing 405MW of energy - and delivering reductions of 918,820t of carbon dioxide, 10,640t of sulphur dioxide and 3,204t of nitrogen oxide. In April the Crown Estate, which owns UK territorial waters, identified 13 sites for 15 offshore wind farm projects, opening the way for delivery of an additional 1,500MW. Amec Border Wind general manager developer David Still believes the UK wind generating sector could easily deliver 2,000MW by 2005.

But there are major hurdles to overcome. Wind schemes frequently struggle to make it through the planning process. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly is reportedly so anti-wind power that local developers with government contracts to produce clean energy, have all but abandoned hope of realising schemes locally ('Wind farm 'moratorium' threatens UK renewable energy targets' NCE 28 June). Firms like DJ Construction are now looking to find sites in England and Scotland instead after schemes approved by local planning committees were blocked by the Assembly.

And the going is by no means smooth in England and Scotland either. BWEA board member for Wales Peter Hinson warned earlier this year that, if schemes continued to be bogged down by planners the government may struggle to realise its 10% renewable energy target.

Meanwhile, wind generators are pushing government and regulator Ofgem hard for a change in the electricity trading regime. Under the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA), brought in earlier this year, generators must predict supply in advance, every 24 hours, to ensure the national grid is not left with an energy shortfall. Firms failing to deliver the agreed capacity are fined.

NETA hits wind generators hard - it is impossible to guarantee consistency of supply because of the unpredictability of the weather. Generators have been forced to hedge their bets, predicting low productivity, or to gamble and face possible penalties. Either way, generators can find themselves struggling to recoup investment. The wind industry argues that weather patterns are seldom consistent across the country and therefore that, on average, energy generated from wind is constant. A DTI spokesman said the issue 'is being looked at'.

Breath of fresh air needed

'The UK hasn't a hope of meeting its renewable energy targets unless it builds large numbers of onshore and offshore windfarms, ' says director of windfarm expert Scott Wilson Oceans, Neil Harris. Oceans was acquired last week by major consultant Scott Wilson.

You would expect Harris to say this, but figures underline that Britain is lagging in embracing wind energy technology, he points out.

'In three months last year the Germans realised projects equivalent to the total UK installed capacity, ' says Harris.

Spain, Portugal, the US, Canada and China are also building wind farms enthusiastically, he says. 'Wind energy is mainstream around the world - the market is worth about £2.5bn/year at the moment.'

The British Wind Energy Association reckons that by the end of the decade wind energy will be worth £11bn globally.

But Britain is stuck in the doldrums.

Over the last 10 years there have been sporadic bursts of growth in wind farm construction, but no consistent upward trend. Turbines delivering 80MW were installed in 1993, but only 10MW went ahead in 1998.

70MW were delivered last year.

'People either love them or hate them, ' Harris says. And for every person who is entranced by the hypnotic rotation of the turbine blades there is another who does not want them in their back yard - or anywhere else.

'Nimbyism' has barred many onshore schemes from gaining planning permission, and has stimulated growing interest in offshore installations, says Harris: so far just one offshore scheme has been realised in UK waters - at Blyth, off the north east coast. Offshore schemes require higher capital outlay but, because it is possible to install larger turbines, offer economies of scale.

But more onshore schemes are needed says Harris, who is pinning his faith on new regional planning guidance which includes targets for renewable energy. 'We are hoping regional planners will drive the growth needed, ' he says. JW

INFOPLUS www. nceplus. co. uk www. britishwindenergy. co. uk www. dti. gov. uk www. crownestate. co. uk

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