Offshore future for UK windfarms

Onshore windfarms may have little future in the UK as turbine companies fear local opposition and laborious planning processes.

The difficulty is forcing some traditionally onshore wind-turbine companies to consider offshore installations as their entryway into the UK wind-energy market.

One of the first to demonstrate this is Clipper Windpower’s subsidiary Clipper Windpower Marine, which was recently awarded a £4.4m government grant to build one of the world’s largest wind turbines for offshore.

While Clipper has a base in London, this will be its first wind-turbine installation in the UK. It will also be the company’s first offshore installation. Most of Clipper’s turbine installations are across the wide open spaces of the US.

Charlotte Kirkham, a spokesperson for Clipper in the UK, said: ‘The UK market, in Clipper’s view, is not suitable for a mass-scale onshore windfarm. The reason for that is contentious planning issues.’

Kirkham added that the US is a much easier market for onshore windfarms. She said: ‘The US has vast quantities of open space where nobody lives. You can have a couple-of-thousand-megawatt farm and it doesn’t affect anybody. Whereas in the UK, wherever you put it there are planning issues. You need to scale with these things and the UK has all the coastline it needs.’

Clipper won the government grant through an offshore wind demonstration call announced by the Department for Energy and Climate Change in May.

The funding will contribute towards costs associated with the development of blades for the Britannia Project, a 10MW offshore wind-turbine prototype under development by Clipper.

The 10MW turbine, which is scheduled for deployment in late 2011, is among the world’s largest under development. It will be manufactured in a new 4,000m2 facility that is likely to be built along the River Tyne in the northeast of England. Once constructed, each blade will be more than 70m long and weigh more than 30 tonnes.

The turbine will stand at 175m and Clipper estimated that over its lifetime it will displace the use of two million barrels of oil and offset 724,000 tons of CO2.

The Crown Estate has agreed to purchase the Britannia prototype.

Kirkham said: ‘The Crown Estate will be able to deploy one of the first large-scale turbines into UK waters. If that goes well, Clipper is working with the owner of UK offshore waters.’

The Crown Estate is in the process of awarding a further 25GW of offshore wind zones, which are likely to enter construction during 2016.

The UK government is sponsoring the Britannia turbine project as a way to help achieve its Renewable Energy Strategy, which states that 15 per cent of all the UK’s energy must be generated from renewable sources by 2020. The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) claims this will mean 35-45 per cent of electricity will have to come from green sources. The majority of these renewables will have to be wind, according to the organisation.

Gemma Grimes, an onshore windfarm planning adviser for the BWEA, said offshore windfarms will likely need to generate 33GW and onshore installations will need to contribute at least 14GW to meet the government’s requirements.

She added: ‘We anticipate at least 14GW of onshore wind by 2020 but we are not sure whether that target is ambitious enough.’

Grimes said the one thing that could stand in the way of reaching 14GW by 2020 will be UK planning processes.

She added: ‘The planning process we have in the UK is very conservation based. We have the greatest history of landscape protection of any country on the planet.’

Onshore windfarms, unlike offshore installations, have to be approved by local councils.

Grimes said: ‘You are open to all the local political concerns and the fact that councillors are elected by a very small number of people every four years and are very keen to keep their place, so there is a natural focus on short termism.’

The biggest thing that needs to change, according to Grimes, is public perception of onshore windfarm installations. She said: ‘It’s a basic fear of change. However, we know perception will alter when people really start to see the effects of climate change. I think there will be a greater understanding from the general public that these things are being developed for a reason.’

Grimes added the UK is the windiest country in the European Union and to not take advantage of that  both offshore and onshore  would be a waste.

She said: ‘We need to be taking the approach that we need everything from every possible source.’

For now, however, wind-turbine companies such as Clipper are not considering any onshore installations in the UK. Kirkham said offshore is where the momentum is at the moment.

She added: ‘If the UK government is going to fulfil any of its targets, offshore is the way to go to get the scale required.’

Siobhan Wagner