Less than a week ago 106 mostly Conservative MPs wrote to the Prime Minister, urging cuts in public subsidies to UK windfarms, on the grounds that these towering turbines were neither efficient to run nor pleasing on the eye. Yet today sees the opening, in Cumbria, of the world’s biggest-ever windfarm, the switch-on to be performed by Ed Davey, the new man in charge of energy and climate change (his predecessor Chris Huhne having temporarily pulled the plug on his political career).
So while Westminster continues to provide an ever-renewable source of Cabinet ministers, it also houses plenty of people who are far from fired up by the prospect of green power, as provided by a 150ft wind turbine. Reviews of windfarms so far read “stupid” (Lord Lawson) and “absolutely useless” (Duke of Edinburgh). Their comments have now been amplified by the MPs’ letter.
“In these financially straitened times,” they write, “we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidies, for the inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines.” They go on to question whether new, give-developers-the-benefit-of-the-doubt planning guidelines mean that objectors will, effectively, be tilting at windmills when it comes to stopping turbines sprouting in nearby fields.
All in all, then, something of a frosty welcome for the new minister. Except there is one small glowing ember on which he can warm his hands. And that’s the word “onshore”. For the new 102-turbine, £1.2 billion windfarm which he opens today is not built on dry land, but 10 miles out to sea – at Walney, off the north Lancashire coast. So while the good people of Barrow-in-Furness can make out the rotor blades twirling around in the distance, they don’t have them towering over their back gardens like grim green giants. Indeed, at a time when the percentage of onshore windfarms being refused planning permission has been soaring from 29 per cent, in 2005, to 48 per cent today, the proposal to build offshore Walney (covering an area of 28 square miles) went through with barely a whimper.
“Compared with the kind of opposition you get when farmers want to make money by putting up turbines, there were minimal objections to Walney,” says Amy Fenton, of the Barrow-based North West Evening Mail. “It may not have created that many permanent jobs, but there is a widespread acceptance that offshore wind is going to play an important role, and that we are going to be a part of it here on the Energy Coast.”
And there are powerful forces behind this drift out to sea. A consortium of 14 different government and industry organisations, known as the Offshore Valuation Group, claims development of offshore windfarms could “unlock the electricity equivalent of one billion barrels of oil a year”, at the same time as creating 145,000 new UK jobs and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.1 billion tonnes by the year 2050.
And it’s not all hot air, either. The Danish company Dong Energy, which built the Walney windfarm in a record five and a half months, is already building three more offshore UK installations: one off the coast of Lincolnshire, one at West of Duddon Sands (near Walney), and another known as London Array, located 12 miles out into the Thames estuary, which, with an output of 630 megawatts, will put Walney’s 368 in the shade.
According to the industry body Renewable UK (“the voice of wind and marine energy”), there are 599 wind turbines currently being built, in addition to the 487 already operating. And if the Government gets its way, many more will follow. “Greening the economy isn’t just good for the planet,” declared Ed Davey last week. “It’s good for the wallets of every British citizen, too.”
Including the Queen, apparently. It turns out that ownership of the sea bed into which these windfarm foundations are being fixed lies with the monarch herself, or at least her agents, the Crown Estate. And in recent months, the Crown Estate has been engaged in an exercise known as Round Three; this has involved issuing licences for windfarm construction not just within waving distance of our coastline, but as many as 200 nautical miles out to sea. If all those projects get built, says Renewable UK, the offshore windpower output will rise from its present figure of 1,534 megawatts to a full-blown 40,000 megawatts.
Of course, the two big advantages of building a windfarm out at sea are first, that the neighbours don’t object, and second, that although the Crown Estate gives you a good grilling, you don’t have to go through the palaver of a full public planning inquiry.
That said, it’s not all plain sailing. Clearly, it’s harder and more expensive to construct wind turbines in 60ft to 100ft of frequently rough sea water than it is to build them up on a grassy hilltop. That much is reflected in the fact that, as well as paying the going rate for the megawatts you produce, the Government also pays an on-top premium (known as an ROC, or Renewables Obligation Certificate, which is twice as much for offshore as onshore-produced power. Then there are the nautical and environmental obstacles.
“The kind of thing we would object to would be building a windfarm in the middle of a seabird migratory route,” says Heather Duncan, of Natural England. “The same would apply if the construction site was in a recognised ‘loafing’ area where large numbers of seabirds gather to preen. Sometimes we will stipulate that litigation procedures should be put in place. There is a windfarm under construction in Morecambe Bay, where the developers employ marine mammal spotters who give an alarm signal if a seal or dolphin is sighted, and the piling and drilling work has to stop immediately.”
Nevertheless, building windfarms at sea clearly has potential for being done on a bigger scale, and attracting less controversy, than, say Farmer Giles trying to trouser a quick £30,000 (the going rate in Cumbria) for planting turbines instead of turnips. Yes, the debates still rage about the efficiency of windpower; its opponents point out that the turbines rarely run at full capacity, while its proponents say the same applies to coal, gas and nuclear power stations. And while windfarms at sea stir up less ill feeling than those on land, environmental organisations maintain there’s room for both.
“We’re going to need a range of clean energy resources, including both onshore and offshore wind,” says Louise Hutchins, of Greenpeace. Paul Steedman, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, agrees. “Let’s face it, we’ve got some of the best wind in the world,” he says, not entirely in jest. “By 2030, we envisage offshore and onshore wind will be supplying more than half of our national electricity demand.”
With the armies of wind turbines now advancing across the hills at a slower rate and encountering stronger levels of opposition, it seems that the battles to build windfarms out at sea are not going to be fought half as fiercely as those on land. Indeed, with ever-increasing numbers of rotor blades thrusting up, like Neptune’s trident, through the azure waves, the next big eco-question must be this: is blue the new green?
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