Plans to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the coast of south-east England were approved by ministers yesterday in a move that could eventually bring 341 turbines to the Thames estuary.
The £1.5bn scheme, called London Array, could generate 1,000 megawatts of power, enough to meet about 1% of the UK’s electricity needs.
The consortium behind the scheme, which includes Shell and E.on, says the wind farm between Margate and Clacton could cut UK emissions of the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, by 1.9m tonnes a year. But the project is dependent on local planning officials giving permission for an onshore electricity substation to channel the power generated about 12 miles offshore into the national grid. Swale borough council has refused permission for a substation in Graveney, Kent, and an inquiry to discuss revised plans is due to start next month.
It emerged yesterday that the estuary wind farm scheme has been altered to protect a little-known bird called the red-throated diver. Ministers will approve the 90 square mile (230 sq km) development only if a first phase of 175 turbines does not damage a 7,000-strong colony of the birds which spends the winter on waters nearby. The birds, which were thought to number only about 5,000 in the UK, were discovered in an environmental survey of the region by the power companies.
Alison Giacomelli, a conservation officer with the RSPB, said: “The risks of climate change are very great but we don’t want to destroy what we’ve already got now. This is the best of both worlds and a really positive step. Other developers we’ve worked with haven’t always given the same priority to birds.”
The government granted a licence for Warwick Energy to build a second wind farm nearby. The £500m Thanet project, seven miles from North Foreland on the Kent coast, will consist of 100 turbines over 13.5 square miles. It is expected to be completed by 2008 and will supply electricity to about 240,000 homes.
Alistair Darling, the trade and industry secretary, said the two wind farms were a significant step towards the UK meeting its target to generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from about 4% now.
“Britain is second only to Denmark in the offshore wind sector and projects such as the London Array and Thanet underline the real progress that is being made.”
David Miliband, the environment secretary, said he expected the announcement to be the first of a number of large-scale offshore wind farms in the UK which “will provide real impetus for the continued developments in the offshore renewable energy sector that will benefit generations to come”.
Maria McCaffery, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association, said: “The significance of these decisions is far greater than the projects themselves. Far more important is the clear signal from the UK to the rest of the world that this country is open for business for offshore wind.”
But the decision to approve the larger London Array project was attacked by Mark Brownrigg, director general of the Chamber of Shipping. “The planning of the Thanet wind farm has taken proper account of all estuary users but the ill-considered decision on the London Array threatens lives and livelihoods. The announcement came at a time when the consultation process is supposed to be still in full flow.”
He said the development would be too close to shipping lanes and the turbine blades could interfere with ships’ radars. “With visual and radar detection of vessels impaired, the risk of collision at sea is greatly increased. Should such a collision involve a chemical or oil tanker then the repercussions would be immediate and far-reaching. It is hard to understand why an environmentally minded project has been pushed forward with little consideration given to its potential to cause an irreversibly damaging environmental disaster.”
The two Kent projects are the first of a new phase of offshore wind farm construction, which has proved more difficult and costly than advocates had hoped. Only four of 18 schemes planned are operational, with the rest held up in planning inquiries or delayed because of the rising cost of steel and a shortage of equipment such as turbine blades.
Onshore wind projects face similar obstacles. The RSPB is among objectors to a huge wind farm planned for Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The government recently announced proposals to change the planning system to fast-track wind farms and other schemes designed to tackle climate change.
The company npower renewables wants to build this giant 1,200MW offshore wind farm in the Greater Wash, off the east coast of England. When completed, it would claim the London Array project’s title of the world’s biggest offshore wind farm.
Isle of Lewis
Developers want to build up to 500 onshore wind turbines in three separate farms on the remote Hebridean island. The local council has encouraged investment in the renewable energy but local communities are bitterly opposed. The RSPB is concerned that the wind farms would affect golden eagles and other birds, and damage sensitive peat land.
Permission for Scottish Power’s massive onshore wind farm at Whitelee, near Glasgow, was finally granted this summer after the company agreed to erect a new radar tower for Glasgow airport. The 322MW facility, the largest of its type in Europe, will produce enough electricity to power 200,000 homes when it enters full operation in 2009.
Gywnt y Mor
Another npower offshore scheme, this time about eight miles off the north coast of Wales, and further out than the existing North Hoyle offshore site. Government and Welsh national assembly officials are weighing up the plans, which would see some 200 turbines put in place to produce 750MW of energy.