Offshore wind: great expectations unmet

There is nothing like wind power to raise the hackles of NIMBYs. Owing to formal objections and political obstruction from conservationists and other parochial vested interests, large-scale onshore wind farms are unlikely to gain widespread acceptance in Britain. That leaves offshore wind as the only viable option for the exploitation of one of the British Isles’ most abundant natural resources.

Around Britain’s 20,000 kilometres of coastline there is no shortage of suitable sites for offshore wind farms, and to date there have been a number of serious plans on the table. Yet in all the years we’ve been discussing offshore wind energy, only this month did we see the launch of a major project, in the form of the 100-turbine, 300-megawatt Thanet wind farm off the Kentish coast. So much for exploiting the wind resources of the Scottish Hebrides and Northern Isles, despite the professed enthusiasm of politicians and community leaders for renewable energy.

The biggest problem with offshore wind is cost, which is massively greater than with onshore wind turbines. But the technology is fairly well developed, with Scandinavian and German companies cornering the market in this area. Economic costs associated with offshore wind were expected to fall with time, but since the mid-noughties they have risen dramatically, and this is the subject of a report just published by the UK Energy Research Centre.

Why the costs of offshore wind have escalated remains uncertain, despite the research efforts of the UKERC and others with an interest in this field of renewable energy generation. The UKERC report lists materials and labour costs, currency fluctuations, supply chain constraints and remote site issues as contributory factors, with planning and consent delays (which were not fully quantified) as the least significant.

Planning problems and other political considerations may well be minor, relatively speaking, but when it came to plans to site large wind farms on or around the Hebridean island of Lewis, and in Lang Kames on Shetland, the economic and political barriers presented by the Crown Estates, which erected bureaucratic hurdles and demanded ridiculously high rents for laying and operating undersea cables between the islands and Scotland, and the cost of transmitting the wind-generated electricity overland down to Britain’s population centres, were huge. The original Western Isles wind project has been replaced by a small, community-led scheme, while the Shetland plan is currently under consideration by the Scottish government.

The opening of the Thanet wind farm is undoubtedly good news, but what we don’t want are offshore wind facilities confined to coastal waters in the southeast of England. That would be an enormous wasted opportunity. Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has referred to Britain as a “dunce” when it comes to renewable energy, and he’s right.