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UK: More than hot air

The country's domestic power needs could be supplied from offshore wind-power by 2020, according to a new government plan. Last month, business secretary John Hutton announced plans for up to 25 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind-power capacity in addition to 8 GW of capacity that was already planned, as it attempts to steer the country towards the EU target of producing 20% of its energy from renewables by the end of the next decade.

The announcement seemed to mark a turnaround in the government's attitude to renewable energy, which has been characterised by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth as being long on rhetoric and short on action. However, doubts have been raised over whether the government's aspirations can be turned into reality.

Under the plan, virtually all of the UK's continental shelf would be opened to wind development in a third round of licensing. "If we could achieve this, by 2020, enough electricity could be generated off our shores to power the equivalent of all of the UK's homes ... [making] a significant contribution to meeting the EU's target of 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020," Hutton said.

UK offshore wind capacity, of just under 400 megawatts (MW), should soon rise, as several large projects are completed, helping the country surpass Denmark as the world's largest offshore wind generator. The Shell-led London Array project in the Thames estuary was given the go-ahead in late 2006 and should be finished in 2012; with a capacity of 1 GW, it will be the world's largest offshore wind farm. Before that, the 300 MW Thanet Project, close to the mouth of the Thames, being developed by Warwick Energy, and the 500 MW Greater Gabbard project off the coast of Suffolk, eastern England, are both scheduled for completion by 2010.

Hutton admitted that achieving the proposed capacity increase by 2020 would be difficult – a sentiment echoed by industry observers. "The target seems pretty aggressive and ambitious," says William Young, an analyst at renewables consultancy New Energy Finance. "It is enormously aspirational, more aimed at stating the government's intentions and giving the industry a carrot to chase."

The wind industry's focus in the UK is on onshore projects and this is likely to remain the case for the next two years. There is also a limited supply of turbines; new manufacturers are unlikely to bring their products to the market in any quantity before 2010. When the finite supply of skilled technicians able to set up offshore wind farms is also taken into account, it seems unlikely that building 25 GW of additional capacity by 2020 would be feasible, Young says.

The scale of the task is put into context by the outlook for the next five years. According to the World Offshore Wind Report 2008-2012, compiled by energy industry analysts Douglas-Westwood, around 4.5 GW of new capacity will be installed worldwide during that time, absorbing $16bn of capital expenditure.

However, the indication that the UK government is supporting offshore wind will be welcomed by the European industry, which has already received a boost by plans for improved feed-in tariffs in both the UK and Germany, another market with significant wind potential.

In the UK, there is also an important political component to the government's backing for wind power, analysts say. Prime minister Gordon Brown is eager to win more support for his strategy to develop a new wave of nuclear power stations in order to raise the level of low-carbon power. A willingness to promote a big expansion of wind capacity may help to mollify strident opposition to the nuclear programme among some parts of the UK public, enabling the two power sources to be developed side-by-side.

Renewed government enthusiasm for offshore wind has gone down well with environmental groups, but their enthusiasm is guarded. "We are delighted the Government is getting serious about the potential for offshore wind," said Nick Rau, a renewable energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "The government must now set out what support mechanisms it will put in place to deliver on its proposals."

 

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