Renewable challenges - we must learn to love wind farms in order to meet green energy targets
Offshore is one of the great and largely untapped sources of energy and will help to play a big part in addressing the issues raised by climate change. If the UK is going to meet its renewable energy targets (10% renewables by 2010, 15% by 2015, and 20% by 2020) then it must take windfarms more to its heart.
Renewable energy only currently accounts for 2% of world electricity generation and in the UK contributes to just 5% of national electricity production. However, with the UK benefiting from 40% of Europe's wind resource, onshore and offshore wind farms will be able to supply close to a fifth of the UK's electricity supplies by 2020, delivering major economic benefits and avoiding 32M tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.
Unfortunately, offshore windfarms are likely to change Britain's coastline, with turbines 260m high and visible from almost every part of the English coast. The scale of the government's proposed offshore development is also almost certain to bring controversy, especially as the turbines could affect shipping lanes, seabird sanctuaries, and marine life.
As we make the shift to low carbon technologies, these types of issues will be more visible and will start to test the limits of what people are willing to give up today for the benefit of future generations.
Onshore windfarms too will also play a big role in helping the UK meet its renewable energy targets. However, the time currently taken on planning decisions is too slow and these will need to be speeded up to help deliver timely decisions to measure progress and assess future needs, or risk renewable energy targets being missed.
Overall, there can be no argument against the possibility of generating power for Britain's energy needs with this clean form of energy. But we need to reach a tipping point were the need for wind and other renewables starts to outweigh broader environmental and social concerns, before we significantly start to see renewable energy projects mitigating the issues arising from climate change.
Despite the bad press that some windfarm developments may have generated, this has actually been a very successful year for wind energy.
According to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) there are currently 156 windfarm projects in operation, generating nearly 2.3GW of power, enough to supply 1.28M homes with electricity, and reduce CO2 emissions by over 5M tonnes.
The economics also make the case for wind power even more compelling; with electricity from wind energy poised to become even more competitive as oil and gas prices look set to continue to rise.
Wind is also leading the way for other key renewable technologies by securing investor confidence and acting as a catalyst for a distributed grid network.
The continued challenge for government and industry is to turn this potential into a cost effective reality. Despite the furore, nuclear fuel will also play a key role in providing the energy of the future and ensure the UK hits its CO2 targets.
Helping to meet the world's energy and CO2 challenges is a hugely complex task and there needs to be greater cross industry collaboration and cooperation to rise to the challenge. Renewable energy development and greater efforts to minimise energy use will make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions to help meet the global warming challenge.
- Ivor Catto is an Atkins executive board director