Wind power industry hits political turbulence in U.K.

Source: Jeremy Lovell • Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012

LONDON — The wind power industry in the United Kingdom has come in for a political spanking in recent weeks over costs, aesthetics and necessity, but it has shrugged it off and gone on with its ambitious program.

There has always been a well-organized, vocal campaign against onshore wind farms here, with opponents calling the giant wind turbines unsightly and a blight on England’s green, rolling countryside. But objections escalated earlier this year when more than 100 parliamentarians from the senior coalition government party, the Conservatives, signed a petition calling for a cut in subsidies.

Prime Minister David Cameron and his new energy secretary, Liberal Democrat Ed Davey, promptly rejected the call and reiterated the government’s staunch commitment to renewable energy sources and wind in particular.

UK Wind farm

Wind turbines march across the moor in Yorkshire, England.

The industry heaved a sigh of relief. “Onshore wind is one of the most cost-effective renewables in the U.K. If we cut back on our aspirations for it, the overall costs of renewables will increase because we will have to draw on more expensive technologies instead,” said Gaynor Hartnell of the Renewable Energy Association, an industry lobby.

The United Kingdom’s wind industry has flourished in recent years, fed by large subsidies and driven by the government’s self-imposed and legally binding commitment to slash the country’s carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. The United Kingdom has also promised the European Union that it will get 15 percent of the country’s energy demand from renewables by 2020.

That equates to about 35 to 37 percent of the country’s electricity. Currently, wind, the most mature and developed of the large-scale renewable energy sources, produces about 5 percent of the country’s electricity.

By mid-January, the country had installed more than 6 gigawatts of wind — making it the fifth-largest producer in Europe behind Germany, Spain, France and Italy. It is also eighth in the world, a lineup led by China and the United States.

Some skeptics in government, others outside

Germany has close to 30 GW of installed wind power capacity, but the United Kingdom has 20 GW more either under construction, consented to or in the planning stage, moving toward the government’s goal of 31 GW by 2020. Some people have serious reservations about whether the goal is achievable.

Tom Burke of the influential E3G environmental think tank told ClimateWire he is not among them. “There are some in the government, with support from the Treasury, who believe we can simply ignore our E.U. obligations on renewable energy and tear up the treaty. The simple fact is we can’t.”

“It is a legal obligation,” he added. “If we fail to meet it, we can be taken to the European Court of Justice and fined. That fine can be as much as €800,000 for each day we are in contravention.”

Obligation or not, the turbulence continued last week when Simon Jenkins, chairman of the prestigious National Trust — a charity that owns and protects historic houses and land — told the Daily Telegraph: “We are doing masses of renewables, but wind is probably the least efficient and wrecks the countryside, and the National Trust is about preserving the countryside.”

Then a spokesman for the National Trust delivered a mild rebuke to its chairman, saying that the trust remains committed to renewable energy and still aims to use it for 50 percent of its energy by 2020. After that, Donald Trump, who is protesting a proposed offshore wind farm near a luxury golf course he is developing in Scotland, congratulated Jenkins “for having the guts to speak out” in a letter. “The future proliferation of these ugly structures will make your beautiful landscapes into an industrial wasteland,” Trump asserted.

Meanwhile, public opinion has become ambivalent if not divided on climate change — a message clearly understood by politicians — and the mood has been exacerbated by rising energy bills and calculations of how much extra green energy will cost. There have also been reports of wind farm operators being paid millions of pounds not to generate during times of high wind because the aging national grid system can’t take the surging load.

“The climate deniers have lost the scientific argument, so now they are turning their attention to public opinion instead,” said Burke. “And some in the Treasury are quietly adding to this. So the backlash against wind will continue, although it won’t make any difference in the end. The government knows it has no alternative.”

Wind industry remains bullish

The wind industry says it is not disheartened, despite the attacks. “There was a cut in subsidies last October,” said Rob Norris of the RenewableUK lobby group. “But it was not as much as we had feared it might be, so the signal of support to industry is clear. We feel there is no chance of the government changing its mind, although we do expect subsidies to be reduced as costs start to come down, something we are working hard to achieve.”

Individual companies are also investing heavily in the future of wind power in the United Kingdom. Danish wind power specialist Vestas has signed a land option deal and asked for planning permission to build a giant turbine factory in the port of Sheerness at the mouth of the River Thames estuary, from which it would be able to supply wind farms along the country’s east coast and in the North Sea. It is expected to make a final investment decision in May.

Likewise, German manufacturer Siemens is in the throes of a public consultation about building another giant turbine plant in the port of Hull on the United Kingdom’s east coast. It is planning to put £80 million into the venture, while partner Associated British Ports pumps in £130 million pounds.

And the giant London Array wind farm — a joint venture of Denmark’s Dong, Germany’s E.ON and the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar — covering 100 square kilometers in the outer Thames estuary has already installed the foundations for 101 of the first phase’s 175 windmills. The first turbines were installed in January.

When the first phase is completed toward the end of this year, it will have a power capacity of 630 megawatts and be the largest offshore wind farm in the world. If it moves into phase two, it will have an installed capacity of 1 GW, equivalent to that of a large nuclear power plant.