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Renewable special: Gale force

Wind power will be key if the UK is to meet tough renewable energy targets for 2020. But investment in infrastructure is needed before it can succeed.

The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive demands that 20% of energy across the EU must come from renewable sources by 2020. This objective is shared between member states − the UK’s own target is 15% by 2020.

To put that into context, in 2005 the UK produced only 1.3% of final energy from renewables. So while other countries have higher targets to reach − for example Sweden’s is 49% − the UK has been assigned the largest percentage point increase.

To tackle this, the government’s Renewable Energy Strategy has set out exactly how 30% of electricity and 12% of heat could be generated from renewables. The National Grid has also laid out plans, setting its own emissions reduction target of 45% by 2020.

Set to have an impact

Of all low-carbon options, wind power is set to have the biggest impact on our energy targets. In the Electricity Networks Strategy Group’s (ENSG) projection of the 2020 fuel mix, wind accounted for 29.1% of sources − second only to gas (34.1%) and ahead of coal (19.8%).

As for other sources, AbuBakr S Bahaj, Professor of Sustainable Energy at the University of Southampton and an ICE journals panel member, says alternatives such as wave and tidal power are still effectively “prototypes” and need development. “At this time there’s no other technology that can deliver what we need by 2020,” he says. “Wind is a good option.”

Despite the rhetoric, however, inadequate infrastructure and bureaucratic restrictions have so far stymied progress on wind power.

“At this time there’s no other technology that can deliver what we need by 2020. Wind is a good option.”

AbuBakr S Bahaj, University of Southampton

In the past three years, authorities approved only 49 of 93 planning applications submitted for onshore wind farms − turbines’ visual impact being one of the most frequent objections. Even where planning approval is granted, the inadequacies of the grid present problems.

Stuart Cook, head of transmission at electricity and gas regulator Ofgem, says investment is urgently needed to strengthen lines to cope with greater power flows, and to install offshore high voltage DC cabling to deal with the bottleneck around the Scottish border.

“We asked the transmission companies to come forward with a vision for how the grid would have to look,” says Cook. “What they identified was the need for potentially £4.7bn of investment to achieve the 2020 target.”

More urgency than ever

Cook says that although there is still some uncertainty about where generation will connect to the grid, there is more urgency than ever to provide adequate infrastructure. “We want to get transmission companies to look forward and build assets in place, in the right time and efficiently,” he says.

Financial incentives from Ofgem, rewarding the construction of new assets according to their levels of use, are designed to stimulate investment. “We’re consulting on this in the course of this year,” says Cook.

Regulatory issues have also had to be overcome. For example, the GB Security and Quality of Supply Standards (GB SQSS) were so stringent they forced many generators that were ready for connection to wait. “If your connection required reinforcements to the network you had to wait for those reinforcements to be made,” says Cook. Earlier this year, there were 450MW of wind farms waiting for connection in Scotland alone.

“We have swept away the impediments that stop people from getting higher up the queue. There is no longer a transmission queue.”

Stuart Cook, Ofgem

In May, Ofgem issued a derogation, meaning the GB SQSS were relaxed and connection dates could be brought forward. “We have swept away the impediments that stop people from getting higher up the queue,” says Cook. “There is no longer a transmission queue.”

But this is only an interim solution and long-term reforms must be made to speed up the connection process. The issue is under consultation, but little progress has been made so far. “It’s a less happy story here,” says Cook. “The people who have access to the grid are not the ones who value it most and need it most.” Ofgem hopes a long-term solution can be found by June 2010.

There are also issues with the regulation of offshore wind farms, which are set to grow. Ofgem and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have brought in a new regulatory regime to make offshore transmission a licensable activity, as it is onshore.

After June 2010, transmitting electricity offshore will be prohibited without a license. Ofgem will grant these licenses via competitive tenders. The pre-qualification stage of the tendering process closed on 24 August and later this month Ofgem will release a “long list” of applicants eligible for the qualification to tender stage.

The biggest stumbling block

Despite the strides that are being taken to make wind power a viable alternative, the biggest stumbling block could still be politics. Whether wind power is the right way to go is still being hotly debated. Critics say wind intermittency will threaten supply security, and that government energy policies neglect alternatives such as other renewables and nuclear.

One high-profile opponent is the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), whose report Decision Time, published in July, called for a shift in the direction of energy policy, to avoid, as deputy-director general of the CBI John Cridland says “putting too many of our energy eggs in one basket”.

“We want to get transmission companies to look forward and build assets in place, in the right time and efficiently.”

Stuart Cook, Ofgem

Ofgem says it is addressing these concerns. “We’ve got a big study under way at the moment, project Discovery, to look into that,” says Cook. Project Discovery looks at how viable the future security of supply is. An initial announcement of its findings will be made this autumn.

Meanwhile, Professor Bahaj says we are on the right track − for now. The infancy of other renewable technologies means we will have to start off with a predominance of wind power, he says, but we should not lose sight of the other options.

“We need to invest in wave and tidal technology and later move to incorporate them when the technology is ready,” says Prof Bahaj, adding that investment now will also make the UK more competitive in global energy markets later.

Mitigating obstacles

As for wind intermittency, he argues it can be mitigated. “Today we are better at predicting wind quite accurately within three or four days,” he says.

“With the variation across the UK we can achieve a balancing act between wind farms.” New nuclear construction, he says, is paramount and can act as a backup when necessary. “The sooner they go about it the better,” says Prof Bahaj.

“We need to invest in wave and tidal technology and later move to incorporate them when the technology is ready.”

AbuBakr S Bahaj, University of Southampton

The transition to low-carbon energy is a logistical puzzle that requires reform, investment, development of new technologies and carefully managed timing. Strategies are falling into place, and it seems that with organisation and investment the obstacles to wind power are not insurmountable.

The COP15 conference in December will be an opportunity to share knowledge and to push wind generation forward − for the energy sector COP15 is not an end in itself but a springboard for the next decade. As Cook says: “We’re all aiming for 2020. Every year counts.”

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