The answer is blowing in the wind

The announcement of the government’s plan to streamline applications to build offshore wind farms has raised the prospect of a rich new seam of work for UK engineering firms.

Lagging behind its European counterparts, the UK’s component and wind turbine industry is praying that energy generators will take the hint and make the jump to wind power.

Hugh Westlake, technical sales manager for Andaray Engineering in Gateshead, which makes bolts for wind turbine hubs, says such a move could create a new supply chain and provide a general fillip to UK engineering.

‘It could be a huge industry in this country, which would include fabrication, casting, machine control engineering, even bolt making,’ he says.

The UK is buffeted by 40% of Europe’s wind, theoretically enough to meet the country’s power needs three times over. But other countries less well endowed in this respect are leading the way in producing power from wind. While 60MW of wind power capacity was built in the UK last year, Germany installed 1,600MW in the same period.

Consequently, the associated manufacturing industries are well established in Denmark and Germany, which are in the forefront, especially in making turbines. Companies such as Vestas and NEG Micon, both Danish, are likely to end up supplying the first of Britain’s offshore wind farms.

Hindrances to development

The move towards wind power is picking up. But according to some, it is little more than a drift. Planning restrictions and objections from local residents have hampered the development of onshore wind farms in the UK.

Last week energy minister Peter Hain published a consultation paper on a DTI one-stop shop for companies seeking consent to install wind turbines offshore.

The government is committed to the UK producing 10% of its energy from renewable sources by 2010. At present the 857 grid-connected wind turbines in this country produce 409MW of electricity. According to the government’s own figures it anticipates that onshore wind energy will be producing 2.6% of the total electricity supply by 2010, with offshore installations responsible for a further 1.8%.

However, a massive and immediate increase in the rate of new wind farm projects would be needed to achieve this level of contribution. According to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) a further 2,515 turbines would be required onshore and another 1,300 offshore. The demand would in turn create more favourable conditions for a UK turbine production line.

Although the government has made available £80m in capital grants for demonstration projects, the UK has just two offshore wind turbines. Stationed a kilometre from the coast at Blyth in Northumberland, they were installed by Amec Border Wind.

Meanwhile, a partnership between the UK’s leading nuclear generator British Energy and wind farm developer Renewable Energy Systems (RES), has applied to the Crown Estates Organisation for permission to build an offshore field of 30 turbines. If it is given the go- ahead, the wind farm should begin to supply power by 2004.

Many manufacturing companies supply the European turbine makers, but the strong pound is making it difficult for British companies to compete with the well established supply chain in mainland Europe.

The BWEA and UK component manufacturers believe the government must take a stronger line with power generators on adopting wind energy.

‘The Danish government has just instructed that five wind farms be built,’ says Westlake. ‘This means that there are 20 to 30 large wind turbines being manufactured at any one time. It is a real production line.’

While some component makers have done well supplying the industry on the Continent — Gwynedd-based Cambrian Engineering has doubled in size in the past two years — others such as Andaray Engineering believe their fortunes lie in the potential UK market.

Westlake says he exports £2m of turbine bolts, but thinks he could sell £5m-worth to a domestic market. Only with the backing of major energy companies and offshore experts could a UK turbine making industry be kick-started, he says.

The lead taken by British Energy and RES could result in an offshore wind farm of 30 turbines capable of producing a minimum of 1MW each — enough power in total to supply a city of 40,000 households.

Chris Shears, development manager for RES, says building offshore wind farms will require considerable engineering expertise, which could be drawn from Britain’s offshore industry and its manufacturing base.

‘The potential exists for a great increase in UK companies’ involvement in the industry,’ says Shears. ‘The turbine towers are all made in the UK and a lot of blades are made in this country and will increasingly be so.’

However, in the short to medium term, RES and other wind power development companies are likely to concentrate their efforts in foreign markets. Shears’ company is planning to build the world’s largest wind farm, with a capacity of 280MW, in Texas.So far as the Uk is concerned Shears says it will be difficult to predict when there will be a definite switch to offshore wind power generation.

But it is possible to see from the Blyth project that the industry has a good future and that the number of offshore turbines is likely to be equal to those onshore.

Track record lead

The track record of Blyth will be used to help cut the costs of new developments. It is considered to be one of the first truly offshore wind farms, because other European experiments, such as those undertaken in Denmark, have been in shallow waters. The Blyth turbine towers are well out to sea and are designed to cope with swells of 8–15m.

Shell has a stake in the Blyth project, and Alison Hill of the BWEA says more offshore oil and gas companies are becoming interested in sea wind farms. ‘There is existing infrastructure that can easily be converted to supporting offshore wind farms,’ Hill explains. ‘Offshore oil and gas companies can help energy producers to help the government reach their targets on renewable energy.

‘With the wind resource and the existing manufacturing base we could become the foremost wind energy producer in Europe.’