Costs threaten UK plan for off-shore wind farms

The government’s plans to encourage the development of offshore wind farms could suffer an early set back, it was revealed this week.

The Crown Estates granted licences to 18 companies to build hundreds of turbines on sites around the coast. But the cost of the investigation into geological suitability of the seabed and other research will have to be borne by the industry.

A spokesman for Warwick Energy, which has been granted a lease for an area of seabed off Barrow-in-Furness, said the site was the deepest, at 17m.

‘This will not be an impossible engineering task, but we do not know the cost of setting this up because we know little about the condition of the seabed,’ he told The Engineer.

Leases have been granted for 13 tracts of seabed, each roughly 10km2. The wind farms will be around 10km from the shore and each will contain up to 30 turbines – with the potential for a total of 400 turbines.

If successful, the combined sites would generate 1,000-1,500MW of power, enough for one million households, or about 1% of the UK’s energy needs. The government wants to see 10% of the country’s power generated from renewable sources by 2010.

The development would represent an investment of £1.6bn across the engineering industry. The British Wind Energy Association claims the farms would also create 8,000 jobs, potentially rising to over 35,000. The BWEA also claims the total energy output from wind would save the equivalent of 4.25m tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted from burning fossil fuels every year.

But the companies involved believe geology could restrict the number of turbines at each site, with some areas proving unsuitable. And because the economics of the entire project are far from proven, companies could be forced to pull out at a later stage if they find that costs are too high.

Gaining planning permission could prove another big hurdle. The leases granted by the Crown Estates are just the first part of that process.

The government has announced the establishment of a DTI one-stop-shop for planning applications, which will include local planning authorities, the Department of the Environment and MAFF. But developers will have to face consultation programmes, which could take three years to complete.

Developers must also consult organisations deemed to be ‘strategic stakeholders’ in the area, such as environmental groups. A spokeswoman for AMEC Offshore Wind Power, added: ‘We also have to consult with the fishing community.’

In addition, the companies must carry out an environmental impact study taking account of the marine life of the allocated site. Once approval is given and if the business case stacks up, construction would only begin, at the earliest, in 2004.At this early stage companies would not say where they would purchase the equipment. A spokeswoman for TXU Europe said: ‘We have no idea where the turbines will come from.’

The major manufacturers of wind turbine technology are German and Danish companies, but some UK firms supply components. If the project takes off it could kick-start a new manufacturing supply chain in the UK, but it is thought that most of the early work is likely to go abroad.