UK's huge push for wind power gets cool response

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said every UK home could be supplied by wind power alone by 2020 by making full use of its wind-swept seas but denied it was backing away from thoughts of more nuclear power.

The sun sets behind the North Hoyle offshore wind farm in the Irish sea off the coast of northwest England, July 22, 2006. Britain said every UK home could be supplied by wind power alone by 2020 by making full use of its wind-swept seas but denied it was backing away from thoughts of more nuclear power. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The target was greeted with wide skepticism, including from the Renewable Energy Foundation, which accused the government of “green exhibitionism”.

Britain has some of the best wind conditions in the world for generating carbon-free electricity, but high construction costs and a sluggish planning process have curbed growth.

The UK already plans 8 gigawatts of offshore wind farms but the government thinks another 25 GW could be added.

Putting turbines offshore would reduce their visual impact and ease their acceptance.

“By 2020 enough electricity could be generated off our shores to power the equivalent of all of the UK’s homes,” Energy Secretary John Hutton said on Monday.

But analysts, environmentalists and power firms questioned the target.

“The scales envisaged are quite unrealistic,” said the Renewable Energy Foundation.

“Uncontrollable fluctuations in the output of 33 GW of wind would, if unconstrained, almost certainly place exceptional technical demands on the indispensable conventional generators.”

It said a much more realistic target for offshore and onshore wind would be 10 GW.

Analyst David Cunningham at Arbuthnot Securities said building wind turbines at sea made less economic sense than building on land, at 1.6 million pounds per megawatt, compared to around 1 million pounds onshore.

“That’s a massive difference when you start running through the return on capital,” he said. “And they also have higher operating costs as you have to use boats and helicopters to get out there for maintenance.”

Hutton told reporters in Berlin the move did not imply Britain had abandoned the possibility of giving the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear plants, adding that no decision would be made on that until early next year.

“There will be scope for both going forward,” he said. “There is an obvious danger in relying on just one technology.”

He said the regulatory regime would be overhauled to put his office in charge of approving the thousands of turbines needed.

“I want to make the UK the best place in the world to do offshore renewable business,” he added.

Greenpeace called on the government to guarantee premium prices for clean electricity so the power industry could take the risk of investing in thousands of turbines at sea.

“Hutton is proposing nothing less than a wind energy revolution, but it won’t become a reality on the back of a speech,” said Greenpeace director John Sauven.

“There will now need to be a revolution in thinking in Whitehall, where the energy dinosaurs have prevailed for too long,” he added.

British Gas owner Centrica, which has just completed foundations for a windfarm at Lynn and Inner Dowsing about 5 kilometers off the coast of eastern Britain, welcomed the news, but said it was too early to weigh up the economics.

“We have to consider other factors in assessing our options, for example the cost of raw materials such as steel and copper, access to other supplies such as turbines and cables and the availability of grid connections,” said a spokesman.

Dale Vince, Chief Executive of power firm Ecotricity, said: “It’s a fantastic ambition to have… but I think it’s a mistake to focus all that thought and effort on offshore wind because there is so much more we can do onshore without extra cost.”

“All that requires is some changes to the planning system to make it more efficient,” he added.

Additional reporting by Naomi Kresge; Editing by David Cowell