LONDON (Reuters) - The renewable energy sector should blossom from next year, when sites for new North Sea wind farms are leased to developers, but only if the government eases planning and helps link the turbines to the power grid.
The government’s failure to give clear backing for green energy has left Britain trailing far behind Germany, Spain, India or China in developing onshore wind farms or the ability to make turbines.
There are no British turbine makers and Denmark’s Vestas is the only major turbine producers with a factory in Britain, making blades in England for the U.S. market, although it closed a plant in Scotland last year.
This could all change from next year, when large areas of the UK North Sea will be sold to wind farm developers on whom the government is relying to help it meet tough European Union renewable energy targets for 2020.
“We have great hopes for offshore development in the UK over the next decade or so,” said Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council lobby group. “(But) there are a number of things that need to be sorted out,” Sawyer added.
Over the next 10 years, some 40 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind farms are to be developed in Europe alone, with Britain expected to account for about half of the total. Britain is already home to the world’s largest offshore wind farms.
At present, there are about 100-110 GW of wind capacity around the world but only 1.5-1.6 GW is offshore.
“We’ve been waiting for the offshore market to materialise for investors,” a spokesman for the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) said.
“Suddenly it’s time to open factories ... We think there will be about eight manufacturers within the next 5-6 years. And that means creating jobs,” he said.
The BWEA estimates that the next generation of offshore wind farms could result in investment of 50 billion pounds ($73.72 billion) and create more than 60,000 skilled jobs.
“However, there is a real danger that much of this investment might not come to the UK,” the association said. “Today the danger is that the new offshore turbines and their components will be built in Germany, Denmark or China.”
Offshore wind farms cost about twice as much per kilowatt to build but, once completed, promise better returns from stronger and more constant winds out at sea.
Offshore turbines are also bigger than those designed for use onshore, with new marine models producing 5 megawatts or more each — enough to power 2,500 homes or more each.
But the nascent offshore industry is yet to develop standard installation and servicing procedures, which have proved more difficult than expected because of the hostile marine environment, especially in winter.
Britain has overcome such problems before and should not waste that experience.
“Because of its experience in the UK North Sea oil industry, they (Britain) are very well positioned to actually lead in developing the industry,” said Sawyer. “The time is now. The opportunity is now. And I seriously hope they take it.”
In one of the first encouraging signs, Clipper Windpower Plc, headquartered in California, said this month it planned to build the world’s biggest offshore wind turbines in Britain to cash in on an expected boom in the North Sea.
Although Clipper has little experience in offshore turbines, it has begun engineering work on a 10-MW turbine off northern England.
With Britain aiming to increase the share of renewables in its energy supply from about 0.5 percent now to 20 percent by the year 2020, Vestas is also increasing investment at its blade factory in the Isle of Wight.
Positive signs from the government have begun to encourage turbine makers to home in on the UK market.
Parliament passed a bill last month committing Britain to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the first legally-binding carbon cutting target in the world.
“With the change in the UK government attitude, we are converting the facility to service the UK market,” a spokesman for Vestas said. “We are building up and we are concentrating on the British market.”
But many in the industry agree the government needs to take concrete steps to help the sector grow, particularly to spur development of the power grid and speed up a clunky planning system that can keep developers waiting five years for approval.
While the government has been working to reform and speed up the planning procedures and also on a plan for modernising the power network to handle variable wind power, they said the efforts were not focussed enough.
“There’re still a number of challenges ... especially there’s some more work to be done on planning systems,” said Keith Anderson, Director of Scottish Power Renewables, which is owned by Spain’s Iberdrola.
The government needs to help the industry develop the new grid connecting to offshore wind farms and clarify who is to shoulder the investment costs.
“The government has been talking about potentially using infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” said Robin Oakley from Greenpeace UK.
“For me, it would be the first on the list to get a working offshore grid ... It would be a win-win preposition.”
Reporting by Nao Nakanishi; editing by Daniel Fineren