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Tough test for wind power


Towering over the white horses swirling on to Norfolk’s treacherous sandbanks, the Scroby Sands wind turbines have swiftly become part of Yarmouth’s identity.

And with the windfarm’s seafront information centre now attracting 35,000 visitors a season, its impact on tourism is clear – but what of its impact on the debate of how best to meet Britain’s future energy needs?

Jon Beresford, who manages E.ON UK’s flagship windfarm, is acutely aware that Scroby Sands represents a toe in the water for the power industry, and a litmus test of wind’s performance.

One of the two biggest offshore windfarms in Britain when it opened two years ago, Scroby Sands will find itself dwarfed by three-times-the-size Robin Rigg when it is built at Solway Firth, and further down the line, windfarms 15 times the size are envisaged further out to sea.

But for technology to advance that rapidly, vast investment that will dwarf the £75m spent on Scroby Sands, will be required, so the eyes of the industry really are on the Norfolk coastline.

When a report on Scroby Sands’ first-year performance was publish-ed earlier this month, wind cynics clamoured to point out it had failed to achieve its power generation target.

But Mr Beresford, who has become a wind champion after working on conventional power stations for more than 20 years, interprets the figures as a significant achievement.

He said: “This is a pioneering site and it has been a steep learning curve.

“We’ve had a number of technical issues with the generators and gearboxes in 2005 but, despite that, we still managed to generate 90pc of the power we expected from the windfarm.

“That means in our first year of operation the windfarm produced enough electricity to power around 37,000 homes.”

Gusty conditions on Scroby Sands has seen unforeseen wear on some of the turbine parts, but engineers from Vestas Celtic, the turbine manufact-urers, will be making modifications in the next few weeks.

A massive jack-up barge, The Sea Energy, like the one used to help install the turbines during the construction phase, will arrive next month with work continuing until December.

Mr Beresford said that once the teething problems had been cured, there was every chance of the turbines exceeding their predicted target of generating enough power for 41,000 homes, equivalent to the whole of Yarmouth, Gorleston and Caister.

He said: “As well as playing an important role in helping to fulfil UK Government targets of generating 20pc of electricity from renewables by 2020, Scroby Sands continues to offer incredibly useful experience as we plan for more, larger offshore windfarms.”

Power giant E.ON UK’s commitment to renewables is shown by the fact that it is planning to invest £1bn in the sector over the next five years.

Mr Beresford said he “did not have a crystal ball” but was still prepared to predict a big growth in the number and size of offshore windfarms over the projected 20-year lifespan of Scroby Sands.

He said: “Turbines are getting bigger and more efficient all the time. The biggest hurdle facing future windfarm development is not technology but the issue of planning permission.”

It is felt in the industry that the planning process will have to be streamlined to realise the full potential of wind energy because the costs of the present unwieldy procedure could jeopardise the viability of schemes.

But Mr Beresford feels the lesson from Scroby Sands’ first year is clear: wind power is on course to be a significant player in Britain’s energy mix.