11 January 2010: UK offshore revolution

The UK has enormous wind potential, and is already the world leader in terms of installed offshore capacity. However, it achieved this with only 688Mw of operational offshore wind farms, having overtaken previous leader Denmark, which has about 620Mw. (1.16Gw is under construction off the UK.) Counting both on and offshore wind power, the UK passed 4Gw of installed wind capacity in 2009, but Germany has around 24Gw. The UK gets only just over 2% of its energy from renewables, making it the worst performer of any other EU country except Malta.

So, the inescapable conclusion is “must try harder”. This is accepted by the Labour government, and also by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition parties. Last Friday, the Crown Estate, the body which manages the seabed, announced the successful bidders for nine more offshore wind zones within UK waters. The projects in these zones would, if all are built, amount to 32.2Gw (see The Crown Estate: The Crowh Estate announces ROUND 3 offshore wind development partners). There are zones in the Bristol Channel, the Irish Sea and the English Channel, but the largest zones – a total of 18Gw – are in the North Sea. This area has provided the UK with oil and gas for the last three decades, which is good for the economy, but not for the climate. North Sea wind power will be good for both.

The main reason why the UK does badly on onshore wind is the level of public opposition. There is opposition to offshore too, but usually less intense. The main barrier to offshore is cost. The government recognised this and, in the 2009 budget, increased the level of subsidy offered. This has meant that more schemes have been approved by the companies – most notably the London Array. This will be the world’s first 1Gw offshore wind farm, and will be in the Thames Estuary. Once completed, it will provide enough electricity for a quarter of London’s homes. The 32Gw projects announced last Friday could provide a quarter of total UK electricity.

The partners building the London Array – Eon, Dong and Masdar – have now announced major supply and installation contracts. However, most of the contracts are with companies not located in the UK. This makes no difference to the climate, but it does make a difference to the politics. These three companies are all ‘foreign’ companies (with headquarters in Germany, Denmark and Abu Dhabi respectively), and German and Norwegian companies did well in the Crown Estate awards. So did Scottish and Southern Energy and Scottish Power, but this introduces yet more politics, as the current Scottish government believes that Scotland should not be part of the UK.

This offshore wind revolution must happen, so the politics must not be allowed to dominate. However, maintaining public support for the transitional cost will require economic benefits to be felt in the UK. Therefore, it is essential that some of the offshore wind turbines and ships needed to install them are built in the UK. This will also improve the project costs – most turbines are now paid for in Euros, so the decline in sterling’s value increased the cost for developers by around 30%. Last Friday, Gordon Brown said that he is going to do everything he can to bring these jobs to Britain. Well, as Prime Minister for the next few months at least, there is quite a lot he could and should do. He should get UK steel companies to make offshore wind turbines – using public money if necessary to convert their factories.

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