The UK has sailed ahead in offshore wind power generation in the past six months, building more offshore windfarms than any other country in the world, and accounting for almost all of the turbines erected in European waters this year.
Of only 108 offshore turbines built around Europe’s coastline from January to June, a whopping 101 were built around the UK, with only six built in Germany, and a single one in Norway, according to estimates published on Wednesday by the trade body European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).
Chris Huhne, energy and climate change secretary, told the Guardian the figures showed how fast the UK was moving in renewable power. “The UK is the undisputed home of offshore wind energy. Our natural resource and competitive advantage mean we have the biggest market in the world. We’re blowing away the competition,” he said. “It’s part of the low-carbon revolution that’s under way in the UK, bringing jobs and growth in new industries and building us a future less exposed to volatile global energy prices.”
Wind energy is now one of the most important construction sectors in Europe, as most of the rest of the construction industry suffered badly during the recession. Offshore wind is seen as particularly important as the turbines can be bigger and wind speeds tend to be higher so energy can be generated more efficiently, and because in many countries the best onshore wind spots have already been taken or wind developers face opposition in erecting turbines.
However, there is still a time lag between the construction of offshore turbines and their connection to the electricity grid, as over the first six months of the year only about two thirds of the number of turbines built in the UK were actually connected to the grid. In the UK, 68 turbines were connected over the period compared with the 32 turbines, the vast majority of them built before the beginning of this year, that were connected to the German grid over the same period.
Owing to the difference between the number of turbines built and the number connected, the UK showed less progress than it should have in adding new generating capacity to the grid: 245 megawatts (MW) added so far this year, against 103MW for Germany because of the number of previously stranded turbines now wired up.
But the scale of the UK’s ambitions is also apparent from EWEA’s research: the turbines built this year represent only a fraction of the numbers planned for windfarms that have already begun, and the UK’s plans far outstrip those of other countries. When the windfarms begun or added to this year are completed, they will be able to provide about 2,240MW of generating capacity in the UK. By contrast, when the German farms are complete their capacity will be only about one-fifth of the size as much, at 450MW.
These numbers also do not capture windfarms that are planned but are still not under construction, of which there are many more in the UK. Across Europe, as of 30 June 2011, there were 1,247 offshore wind turbines fully grid connected with a total capacity of 3,294 MW in 49 windfarms spread over nine countries. Although seven more turbines were erected in the first six months of 2010 than in the same period this year, the turbines tended to be bigger and more powerful, so the amount of generating capacity installed was greater this year.
Christian Kjaer, chief executive of EWEA, said progress had been made on offshore wind in the first half of the year but warned about the financial problems still facing the sector. “While we see several positive trends for the European offshore wind power sector we are not home and dry yet,” he said. “We are coming out of the financial crisis but are still facing a potential worsening of the general economic crisis. The number of banks lending for offshore windfarms is steadily growing, although there is a continued need for attracting an increasing number of large institutional investors to offshore wind projects – presently the largest construction undertakings going on in Europe.”
EWEA found that more banks were now interested in financing offshore windfarms – more than 20 are now involved – and said it was “positive” that the European Investment Bank continues to provide funds, and that the UK government is to make offshore wind a priority for the planned “green investment bank”, to be set up next year with about £3bn.
Offshore wind technology is also progressing – the single turbine erected in Norway was a prototype floating turbine, that if successful could allow turbines to be placed in deeper water than is possible at present, opening up new areas for exploitation, and allowing turbines to be moved around if necessary.