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Wind in the sails of the UK offshore industry

When Danish wind energy firm Vestas closed its Isle of Wight blade facility last year, the government’s vision of turning the UK into an industrial hub for the offshore wind industry looked to be in tatters.

But with Clipper, Mitsubishi, GE and Siemens all recently announcing plans to build turbine manufacturing facilities in the UK, there’s now some real momentum behind Britain’s offshore wind sector. And as our big story Offshore giants: the rise of the towering turbine demonstrates, the UK is also spearheading some of the most ambitious projects in the industry.

Currently under development at Clipper Wind Power’s facility in Blyth, Northumberland, the 10MW Britannia turbine will, when complete, be the largest wind turbine in the world. Expected to be up and running by 2012, the 100m high structure will dwarf existing offshore turbines, and its 70m long blades could generate enough power for 10,000 homes.

There’s a misconception that the wind power industry is awash with subsidies. It isn’t.

The rationale is compelling. As turbines grow in size, the cost per watt of generated power falls. Find solutions to the technical problems thrown up by such large structures and you’re on to a winner. So far, just one of these mega-turbines has been ordered by the Crown Estate but our European neighbours are watching and many believe that giant offshore turbines could be the shape of things to come.

Gratifyingly, reports suggesting that the project could be scuppered by government cuts are wide of the mark. There’s a misconception that the wind power industry is awash with subsidies. It isn’t. Most developments are financed by the companies themselves and any cuts are unlikely to impact projects currently being rolled out. But there is a caveat. While industry will happily pay its own R&D costs, for the sector to flourish government investment is required in the infrastructure needed to support a fully fledged manufacturing industry.

It’s therefore important that the £60m ports competition - a Labour initiative designed to do just this - doesn’t become a casualty of spending cuts. The aim of the competition, which will see UK ports bid for money, is to rejuvenate a port that could be strategically important for the development of the offshore wind industry. Our existing infrastructure simply isn’t set up to support a turbine manufacturing industry. One of the reasons onshore turbines aren’t any bigger is that they couldn’t be transported on the roads and if the future of offshore wind truly is giant turbines such logistical issues will become even more critical.

What’s more, it seems that the scheme was one of the reasons Siemens and GE chose to build plants in the UK. Indeed, Siemens has stated that it will wait to see the outcome of the ports competition before going ahead with its plans.

The Engineer has long argued that the UK has the expertise, geography and international recognition to be a world leader in offshore wind. The government must recognise that a steady level of investment in infrastructure now will attract manufacturing, create jobs and potentially reap huge rewards in the future.


Readers' comments (14)

  • Yeah, wind farming is the way to go.

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  • I have always been a little surprised that, with the likes of BAe and Rolls Royce, and companies such as Mabey for the support structures, that we don't have our own manufacturing capability for wind turbines.

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  • What about when the wind drops? Halving the wind speed reduces power output by a factor of eight, does it not?

    Wouldn't it be better to put resources into harnessing tidal power, which is reliable?

    What is the truth about subsidies, which, it has been claimed (, have risen to over £1bn per year?

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  • It's great news that our Wind Energy industry looks set to be rejuvinated but the transportation of the blades is one area that has been a overlooked, why don't these companies look at utalising Airships to transport these massively long blades accross land? I'm sure they won't cause a problem as they are light enough to be carried by quite small Blimps and put down within metres of the Turbine location on land.

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  • Yes, we must forge ahead with wind power while developing wave and tidal power technologies, which are not affected by weather (the power of the moon's gravity is pretty reliable).

    We do need to be on our guard about some renewable power schemes though. There are several new proposed bio-fuelled power stations would be fuelled by palm oil from abroad. This is very bad as it will just hasten rainforest destruction and compete with food crops.

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  • Where is the sense in transporting offshore wind turbine components by road? Surely the answer is to fabricate them at the sites of our old shipbuilding industry and then ship them by sea.

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  • The second post mentions that the wind drops which is a problem. I've read that considering the UK as a whole, it is very seldom that the wind is not blowing.

    Regarding subsidies (again mentioned in 2nd post), Lord Stern mentioned in his LSE public lecture of 2009 that the oil industry receives subsidies of £200bn / year. Obviously nuclear is subsidised too. Wind creates no pollution of course, no hidden problems stored for the future.

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  • I don't belive it. the ecconomics are just not attractive without subsidies. With installed (onshore!) costs of arround $2000/kw (granted larger turbines would reduce this) and a capacity factors of ~30%, huge grid connection fees and inadequate tranmission systems shows the futility of this. Nuclear is the only current option of course supplemented by all the "clean renewable" fads untill they are proven technically and ecconomically.

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  • There are actually enormous subsidies. Perhaps they are limited up front as you say, but operational subsidies are huge. They are in the form of the Renewables Obligation, feed-in tariffs, carbon trading etc etc. The second set of subsidies is the fact energy companies are compelled to take the energy and in doing so, the standard power stations have to shed load. With fixed costs, this is expensive; we all pay.
    This very costly low grade energy form will reduce carbon emissions but by ruining and reducing the real UK economy.

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  • Makes you wonder what Vestas where thinking when they closed their IOW factory.

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