The government’s plans to boost Britain’s power production from wind farms have been called into question after being dealt a double blow by the Ministry of Defence and the energy regulator.
The MoD has objected to at least four onshore wind farms on the East coast that are in the of sight of MoD bases because they interfere with radar and make it impossible to spot aircraft.
The same objections look likely to be made for proposed wind turbines in the North Sea which form part of the huge renewable energy expansion unveiled by the government in December.
The site is directly in line with Britain’s three principal radar defence stations at Brizlee Wood, Saxton Wold and Trimingham on the Northumberland, Yorkshire and Norfolk coasts.
At the same time the energy watchdog Ofgem has expressed concern over the large subsidies being paid by consumers to fund the drive for wind power.
They say the format of the subsidy arrangements and bottlenecks in the planning system are lining the pockets of renewable firms without producing many wind turbines.
Britain needs a massive expansion of wind energy to meet EU-wide targets of generating 20 per cent of power from renewable sources by 2020.
In December, business secretary John Hutton unveiled plans which could lead to every household in Britain being powered by off-shore wind farms.
Wind is currently the source for less than half a gigawatt, only enough to power about 375,000 homes, but by 2020 Labour hopes it will provide around 33 gigawatts.
But at a planning inquiry last October, a senior MoD expert sparked alarm over the plans when he said the turbines leave a hole in radar coverage making it impossible to see plans flying overhead.
In written evidence, Squadron Leader Chris Breedon described his findings, which were based on trials during 2004 and 2005, as alarming.
He said: “This obscuration occurs regardless of the height of the aircraft, of the radar and of the turbine.”
He added that not only did the turbines create a radar hole directly above the wind farm but also a shadow beyond them that meant low-flying aircraft could not be detected.
“The MoD trial results were alarming as they confirmed a greater impact than that previously thought. This in turn required a more robust approach to wind turbine assessments,” He said.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, has also stated under no circumstances should radar surveillance capacity suffer.
This has all led the MoD to announce that it would be objecting to both off and on-shore wind farms if they caused radar problems.
Developers are furious at the change of policy because they had been told that there would be no defence implications.
They are now said to have written a letter of protest to Mr Hutton and the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.
The government is also facing criticism over the subsidy paid each year through consumers’ electricity bills to fund the drive for renewables, which will increase from more than £600m a year this year to £3bn a year by 2020.
The subsidy is called the Renewables Obligation (RO) and requires electricity suppliers to derive a proportion of power from renewable generators.
The cost is then passed on to the consumer but effectively the RO means consumers pay the same regardless of whether a little or a lot of energy is produced.
If too little is produced the subsidies are shared out among a small band of producers, giving them higher returns but without securing the building of wind farms.
Andrew Wright, director of markets at Ofgem, said: “The RO is a very expensive way of providing support for renewables.”
Peter Atherton, head utilities analyst at Citi Investment Research, said: “It’s a bonanza. Anyone who can get their nose in the trough is trying to.”
A MoD spokesman said: “In the past there have been objections to offshore wind farms but you experience the same problems with radar wherever they are.
“All wind farm applications are assessed on a site by site basis.
“The MOD is committed to Government targets for renewable energy and whenever possible we seek to work with wind farm developers to find a mutually acceptable solution.”
It did, however, add: “We look at whether turbines will be in line of sight, ie, if the radar can see the turbine.
“If it can, we know there will be an effect as we have evidence from trials. We decide whether line-of-site effect is manageable or not.”
The British Wind Energy Association said: “This is a very real issue for us, but we are now working with government.
“We are hopeful of seeing progress on this soon so that we can reach the ambitious 2020 targets for renewable power in the UK.”
By Daniel Bates
4 February 2008
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