Offshore wind turbines

Wind power sets new records

With the 5GW mark passed 2010 will be remembered as a vintage year for wind energy.

Even climate change sceptics who bemoan the investment in renewable technologies cannot argue that it has been a good year for wind energy, particularly in the UK.

With the commissioning of the Thanet offshore wind farm in September, the installed capacity of wind power topped the 5GW mark in the UK, this just a year after hitting 4GW. The completion of the 180MW Robin Rigg and 173MW Gunfleet Sands wind farms in April marked 2010 as the year that offshore wind broke the 1GW barrier for total deployment. The 743MW newly built out in the 12 months to October 2010 has more than doubled UK offshore installed capacity, making this a record year for offshore deployment.

'On a net global scale we are looking to have some growth in the wind market overall, which, given the difficulties in the global economy, is a success in itself,' Gordon Edge, director of policy at Renewable UK explains. 'A lot of people were expecting this year to bring a bit of a downturn, and indeed in some markets like the US there has been some significant reduction in build. But places like China are absolutely motoring through. We are expecting to be hitting around 200MW globally by the end of this year.

'In the UK we continue to see gigawatts being built and are now at 5GW overall. That final gigawatt took less than a year to commission; looking back, the commissioning of the first ever commercial wind farm in the UK in 1991 took over 14 years, whereas over five years we've just had we have had 4GW, with each taking less time than the previous. It has been an accelerating installation, which is obviously very satisfying.'

Onshore stable

Looking at the volume of onshore capacity currently under construction, the UK industry reached another milestone on 30 September 2010, with 33 projects under construction, totalling 1,104MW. This takes the UK onshore wind construction pipeline over the 1GW mark for the first time.

While the total number of projects under construction at the moment is slightly down on the 36 projects under construction at this time last year, SSE's 350MW Clyde wind farm has pushed the current capacity in Scotland up one-third ahead of last year's figures, from 639MW to 954MW. England has also seen progress, returning to the levels of construction experienced in 2008, after a slowdown in 2007 and a collapse in 2009.

The last 12 months have seen steady growth in onshore developments with 1,194MW consented in the year to October; an increase of 157MW consented compared to the previous year. In total, 71 wind farms were consented in this period, the largest being the 118MW Muaitheabhal scheme on the Isle of Lewis and the 109MW Whitelee Phase II in East Ayrshire.

Similar to previous years, a significant proportion of progress in onshore wind has been driven by a relatively small number of larger sites, with 32 per cent of total concentrated capacity coming from five projects totaling 385MW in the last 12 months. This compares to the same number of consents delivering 272MW over the previous year to October 2009.

However, there continue to be problems plaguing development of onshore projects - the so-called 'holy trinity' of planning, grid and the support mechanism.

Planning has always been an issue and, despite attempts to improve it, the system is dubbed by Edge as an 'objector's charter'.

'The previous administration did have certain aspects to policies that did have some things that were helpful, such as regional targets,' Edge says. 'If a project was turned down at a council level you could take it to the planning inspectorate and say that this regional target was being missed and this is a project that should be being passed.'

Several projects escaped the minefield of planning regulations using this loophole, but those targets have now been taken away. 'We are seeing a situation now where it is going to be a lot more difficult to go through an appeal process to get consent,' Edge continues. 'We will have to rely on working further with local communities to build up support and try to increase the approval rate at the first hurdle of local approval.'

The second challenge - the grid - has seen some major improvements with the introduction of the new 'connect and manage' regime. This scheme aids the connection of any new generation, but the main beneficiary in the short term is the large queue of projects trying to connect in Scotland. 'We have been seeing gigawatts brought forward by several years and that is making a big difference in how we view how we are going to be able to build into the future,' Edge says.

'That is a high positive there, especially as we also have the review of the transmission charging regime that is being kicked off the project transmit that Ofgem is running now. Hopefully that will lead to a fairer basis of charging, particularly for variable generation like wind which does not burden the network as much, and we feel should be charged less.'

The final challenge is the financial support mechanisms. This is currently the Renewables Obligation and the opinion of Renewable UK is to leave it alone, as it is doing its job.

'Any criticism that it doesn't work is actually pointing the finger in the wrong direction as it has been planning and grid issues that have stopped us from building, particularly onshore wind, as fast as we might,' Edge adds.

'Since 2002, when the Renewables Obligation was introduced, we have had in excess of 20,000MW of offshore wind projects into the planning system. The fact that we only have a fifth of that built is not the fault of the Renewables Obligation. Clearly, developers are responding to the signals that are given but are being held up through planning and gird connections. As far as we are concerned that leg of the stool is sound.'

Onshore technology

The assumption about the technology for onshore turbines is that it is a mature market. It is, after all, almost 20 years since the first wind farm was erected. However, this could not be further from the truth.

Up until 2008 onshore wind was a real growth story that meant that most manufacturers were focusing on increasing their production capacity fast enough to meet the demand. Even if they were carrying out R&D they didn't have the capacity to roll out into all of their products.

'A little bit of a silver lining we have found over the past couple of years is that, with the global slowdown, turbine manufacturers are really looking at how to focus on driving this new technology into their machines and cutting down the cost,' Edge says.

Offshore growth

The beginning of 2010 saw the Crown Estate award its Round 3 licence agreements, which have a potential capacity of 32GW, while the agreement to lease new extensions to Rounds 1 and 2 announced in May added another 2GW. The announcement of four demonstration sites is also critical for testing new technology in the tough marine environment.

However, even though the focus appears to have moved offshore, Edge is adamant that it is not an 'either/or' in this situation. 'We are anticipating that onshore wind will be building something in the region of 1,000MW a year for the next ten years,' he says. 'That would get us to the overall figure of 14GW or 15GW that was in the Renewable Energy Action Plan, which was submitted by the government to Brussels to the European Commission.

'At the moment, we have just short of 4GW of onshore wind operating, a further 1GW under construction, and around 3.5GW that has consent but is yet to enter the construction phase. On top of that again there is another 7,500MW in the planning system.

There are a further four offshore projects totalling 1,153MW currently under construction and due to complete by 2012 and eight projects totalling 2,728MW waiting to break seabed.

Research is also under way to develop a UK-built offshore 10MW turbine, continuing the industry's technological advancement.

Following the publication of the government's spending review on 20 October this year, it is understood that £60m of the £200m fund for renewable and low carbon technologies will go toward ports funding. Retaining the Ports Fund will give the industry a huge boost and establish the UK as a major force in renewable energy manufacturing.

However, Edge is happy to concede that offshore wind is currently making the headlines. 'Offshore is where the news is just the best for the UK in that we hit 1,000MW and, at the end of the year, with 1,341MW we have more offshore wind installed than the rest of the world put together,' Edge continues. 'We have a further 3,000MW of projects that are under construction or have the contracts in place and will be constructed in the next three to four years.'

The UK has established itself as the number one country in offshore wind, and has revealed government support for turbine manufacture, with £60m pledged for English sites, and a further £70m promised by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond for similar project development.

Positive announcements by companies such as Siemens, Gamesa, Clipper and GE, plus Mitsubishi, who are all bringing turbine manufacturing facilities to the UK suggests that the nation can develop the manufacturing industry for offshore that it missed out on with onshore, and capitalise on having that world-leading market position.

'If someone had told me this time last year that four of the world's leading turbine manufacturers had concrete plans set up in the UK I would have said they were dreaming, and those are just the ones that have announced,' Edge adds. 'We know there are others sniffing around the UK as a potential investment site for their offshore capacity as well.'

What's the future for offshore?

Offshore wind is still a new sector, which has been taking onshore machines and adapting them to work at sea; that was certainly the case with the earlier machines.

But we are now seeing the first generation of offshore-specific machines, for example the Siemens 3.6MW turbine, which is utterly dominating the UK market with 740 of 770 turbines. However, there is still a very long way to go on the technology side for offshore wind.

'The moment you step offshore everything changes, and I think people are still working that one through,' Edge adds. 'Apart from anything else, the fact that you are further away offshore - and away from the public - means that a lot of things that can strain you onshore are not a problem.

'For example, onshore you need to have slower rotation speed to keep noise levels down and there is more wildlife to contend with. Instead of being constrained with a three-bladed upwind model all bets are off with offshore, and some people are talking about vertical axis, or two bladed possibly downwind of the tower and rotating a lot faster, which people have told me is a far more efficient way to extract more energy from the available wind. There are lots of things that could happen, but this will take a lot of money.'

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