Renewable energy entrepreneur Graham Brown, who has just raised £4.2m for wind farm development business Burcote Wind, on the need for consistent Government energy policies, rival farms that are in the “wrong places” and why solar is a “nonsense” in the UK.
Last week, the Government confirmed steep cuts to the ‘feed-in tariff’ subsidies large solar projects can claim for the power that they generate. The solar industry warned that the decision would lead to the loss of green jobs because it would halt the development of projects.
Wind power entrepreneur Graham Brown sympathises with those who argue that constant tinkering with the energy policy is undermining the UK renewable sector’s competitiveness, but claims that the solar debate is a red herring – we simply don’t get enough sun to make the industry commercial.
“Solar is a bit of a nonsense in the UK,” he says. “In Italy and Spain, why not go for solar? We’re Northern Europe, where we don’t get much sun, so why don’t we go for wind?”
Brown, who has just raised £4.2m from private investor network Hotbed for wind farm development company Burcote Wind, would say that, of course. His company identifies and acquires sites for wind farms and develops them to planning permission stage.
Wind power has its own vocal critics. Wind farms also benefit from feed-in tariff subsidies while electricity suppliers are obliged to buy a proportion of their power from renewable sources such as wind. The cost of this support for the sector is ultimately passed to businesses and consumers in the form of higher energy bills. Sir Roger Carr, the new president of the CBI, told the Sunday Telegraph that the rising cost of energy will lead to many British manufacturers relocating abroad.
Dr John Constable, Director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, has estimated the consumer subsidy for wind farms and other renewable energy sources will total at least £100bn by the time the Government meets its carbon reduction targets in 2030.
While Brown admits wind power is not “a panacea”, he insists it’s an important part of the “energy mix ” in the context of legally binding agreements to cut the UK’s C02 target and a dwindling energy supply base. Nuclear capacity in the UK, for example is due to decrease from 18pc to 3pc of generated output over the next 15 years. “The pressing problem is how you plug an energy gap in the short to medium term. Wind energy is the most established and proven form of renewable energy and hence one of the fastest growing energy technologies in the world. Onshore wind power has grown by 158pc in the UK over the past five years.”
Brown believes the biggest objections to wind power – cost and efficiency – can be partly addressed by more intelligent placement of sites.
“People are sighting them in the wrong places – in non-windy areas. With faster wind speed, the output increases exponentially. If you have [wind speed of] 4 meters per second you’re at 4.2pc efficiency. If you go to 8 meters per second, you’re at 41pc efficiency. We see a number of sites in the areas [with average wind speeds around] 4 meters per second, so it’s not surprising [efficiency] is low. The minimum we look at is 7.5 meters per second,” he says.
For that reason, Burcote is focused on identifying onshore sites in Scotland, where the Scottish Executive has increased its targets to achieve a minimum of the country’s energy consumption from renewable sources from 50pc to 80pc in 2020.
“We are focused on Scotland because it is Europe’s windiest country and holds an estimated 25pc of Europe’s harvestable wind resource. It is also less densely populated than the rest of the UK, meaning that impact on local communities can be reduced, which, allied to the Scottish Governments ambitious renewable energy targets, increases the chances of achieving planning consent,” says Brown.
Planning laws are one of Brown’s biggest bugbears, another reason it makes sense to focus wind investment in Scotland. “There are massive issues on planning. Scotland has avoided what happens in the UK – the need to go to local bodies to decide. In Scotland, for projects above 50mw, it goes to the Energy Consents and Deployment Unit. Good projects go through, bad projects shouldn’t.”
The company, which was previously backed with £3.3m from Hotbed, currently has options or exclusivity agreements over 11 sites, with a combined potential generating capacity of 495MW, roughly equivalent to the output of a traditional coal-fired power plant.
Brown does agree with the solar industry that uncertainty in the Government’s energy policy risks driving green jobs overseas.
“The [Government has] massive potential to shoot themselves in the foot,” says the 52 year-old. “They also have the ability to do a lot of good and draw in investment that is fleeing from countries like Spain – where they’re changing things like feed-in tariffs. There are also issues in the US. Large institutional investors in the sector need certainty.”
Brown says Burcote has only looked abroad “in a cursory way” so far. “But if the regulatory environment is not right, clearly people will look abroad. We’re not a big player, but it’s straightforward business sense that the money will go where it makes sense for it to go.”