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For Clean Energy, Britain Looks to Sea

England is betting on offshore wind power to cut greenhouse gas emission
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ISTOCKPHOTO/PARETO

SKEGNESS, England - Humans have left many landmarks across central England's Lincolnshire county over the past two thousand years: Roman roads, medieval castles, World War II airfields. The newest stand three miles offshore from this beach resort town: Fifty-four massive wind turbine towers, each rising 440 feet above the North Sea - about as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The adjoining wind farms, Lynn and Inner Dowsing, boast 194 megawatts of capacity, enough to power 130,000 homes. When these projects started up in 2008 the U.K. displaced Denmark as the largest offshore wind generator in the world.

Their developer, Centrica Energy, is thinking bigger. It is preparing to build Lincs, a 270-megawatt wind farm with 75 turbines, five miles offshore in the same area - a large shallow bay known as the Wash, where five rivers drain to the sea. And Centrica is proposing two more projects nearby: Docking Shoal (500 megawatts, 9 miles offshore) and Race Bank (620 megawatts, 16 miles offshore).

Centrica is just one of the half-dozen or so biggest players in a fast-growing industry that is critical to Britain's climate change plans. The U.K. has set legally binding targets to cut carbon emissions 34 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Wind power is the nation's biggest renewable energy source: Britain has 242 onshore farms generating 3,300 megawatts and eight offshore farms totaling 600 megawatts.

The current Labour government wants to expand wind development radically as part of a shift to a low-carbon economy.

Globally, the World Wind Energy Association projects that wind power will grow by 25 percent in 2009 despite the global economic downturn. Europe has more installed wind capacity than any other region (65 gigawatts through 2008), followed by the United States (25 gigawatts) and Asia (24 gigawatts).

Germany and Spain, which committed to wind power early, are still Europe's leading wind sources, but a second wave of new players is moving up fast. The U.K., France, and Italy all have surpassed Denmark, long seen as the poster-country for wind power. Last year more wind power was built in Europe than any other electricity source, including coal, gas, and nuclear generation.



In its World Energy Outlook 2009 report, released in November, the International Energy Agency warned that to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change, the world will have to make massive investments to transform energy use over the next several decades. Much of that funding, the agency said, would have to come from the private sector, but policies and regulations would determine whether investors supported low-carbon solutions. The U.K.'s push is one example of what may be necessary to shift to a clean energy path.

"Offshore wind is going to be the greatest special use of the seas around the U.K. in a short period of time, which can be scary," said Victoria Copley, a senior energy specialist with the advocacy group Natural England. "But a lot of research has been done, and we're in a much better place than we were three years ago."

* * * *

Today just 5.5 percent of the U.K.'s electricity comes from renewable sources. The government's Low Carbon Transition Plan would boost green power's share to 30 percent by 2020, with about two-thirds of that supply coming from wind. The government is using a battery of policies and subsidies to scale up wind power five-fold in 20 years.

One key measure, the Renewables Obligation, requires large electricity suppliers to generate a share of their power from renewable fuels. The obligation started at 3 percent in 2002, is at 9.7 percent today and will rise to 10.4 percent next spring. Technologies deemed less commercially mature - such as offshore wind - receive extra credit for each megawatt-hour of generation. Chancellor Alistair Darling has pledged to maintain the obligation through at least 2037.

While the technology is less mature, offshore projects have advantages: Winds blow harder and more steadily over the ocean and turbines can be larger than land versions, increasing power output and revenue from each tower.

Moreover, land-based wind farms in the U.K. are meeting resistance as the industry scales up. Local councils have vetoed three-quarters of new onshore wind proposals this year, although many of these decisions were reversed on appeal. So far offshore applications have been more successful.

British leaders see offshore wind as a high-tech growth area: The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates up to 70,000 new jobs and 8 billion pounds in annual revenues. "The economies that embrace the green revolution earliest will reap the greatest rewards," Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in a September editorial for Newsweek.

But in the face of this push, impacted communities and groups have scrambled to keep pace.



Coastal waters are the most crowded parts of the ocean, and energy development in areas like the Wash raises conflicts with existing uses like shipping, fishing, tourism and wildlife conservation. The Wash is England's largest bay, spanning 240 square miles of tidal flats, salt marshes and lagoons. For developers, getting large projects approved and built in areas like this is a balancing act. Ignoring local concerns can create enemies, but if permitting drags on, companies lose money and have trouble raising capital for construction.

The Crown Estate, a statutory corporation that controls property owned by the Queen (including coastal seabeds), has granted leases for offshore wind projects in three formal rounds of bidding since 2001.

Eighteen leases, limited to 30 turbines each, were awarded in Round 1. Two years later, the government designated the Greater Wash as a "strategic area" for offshore wind, along with the Thames River Estuary and the northwest coast of England and Wales. That year, before any Round 1 projects had been built, the Crown Estate awarded leases for 15 Round 2 projects with up to 250 turbines apiece, including Lincs, Docking Shoal and Race Bank.

"There wasn't a lot of detailed thinking that went into [selecting the Wash as a strategic zone], but you could see that it was a good potential area," said Neville Barltrop, public affairs manager for renewables at Centrica. "A lot more could be done up front on [analyzing] issues like fishing grounds, water depths, and shipping areas. But the work we're doing is painting a cumulative picture for wind farms and other kinds of offshore development."

Round 3 leasing, launched in 2008, aims to deliver 25 gigawatts of new capacity by 2020 on top of the 8 gigawatts expected from Rounds 1 and 2. The government identified nine Round 3 target zones, most of which are much larger than current leasing areas and lie farther offshore. One company will receive exclusive development rights in each zone, and the Crown Estate will fund up to half of developers' costs for planning and obtaining permits.

"The Crown of State has really grabbed Round 3 by the horns," said Copley. "Ideally, we'd get all of the Round 2 projects built and operate them for at least three years to get a real feel for impacts. But we're not in an ideal world."

Environmental impacts
are important concerns in the Wash. Surveys have counted 78 species of birds in the area: Thousands of geese, ducks and wading birds feed in the shallows, and beaches near Skegness are protected nesting areas for terns. The Wash is also home to 10 types of whales and dolphins, as well as common and grey seals.

These resources have earned the Wash its ranking as a wetland of international importance. England also lists it as a Special Protection Area under a 1979 European Union directive that requires member countries to conserve habitat for rare and migrating birds.



Large U.K. environmental groups generally support wind power but oppose projects that they believe threaten lands and wildlife. Centrica has commissioned several studies to address greens' concerns. During construction of Lynn and Inner Dowsing it funded radar tracking of pink-footed geese, which migrate from breeding grounds in Scandinavia and winter in Wash marshes, and which birders feared might collide with turbines. Surveys found that the geese flew over or around offshore turbines. "It's a fantastic example of developers taking our concerns seriously and working with us," said Louise Burton, a regional advisor with Natural England.

For Docking Shoal and Race Bank, Centrica is studying whether turbine collisions may seriously affect Sandwich terns, which forage up to 10 miles offshore. The company has also revised proposed routes for underwater cables connecting turbines to the mainland to minimize seabed impacts.

"It gets harder as more wind farms are approved and more turbines go up," said Burton. "The more areas you look at and techniques you apply, the more impacts you find. Round 3 will affect bird species that move across from Denmark, Finland, and Norway. We also believe that sound waves from construction may affect whales and seals, although there are ways to mitigate those effects."

Fishermen are more negative. A 2006 survey found that many fishermen in Round 2 priority areas feared losing access to fishing grounds during wind farm construction and worried that fishing around operating turbines would be unsafe. Many expected that offshore wind farms would push them into new areas or drive them out of business.

Rob Blyth-Skyrme, who is leading a study of mitigation options for the consulting firm Ichthys Marine, said seasonal fishing patterns, confidentiality of commercial information, and some lack of clarity over which fishing activities, if any, will be excluded from different wind farms makes assessing their impacts difficult. Some 600 fishermen work the Greater Wash area, mostly on small commercial boats.

"There will probably be winners and losers in the fishing industry," he said. "One thing is certain, though: If the U.K. government renewable energy policies are to succeed, fishermen will have to navigate around a lot more turbines in the future."

Local support for Centrica's projects is strongest in towns near the sites, which have close-up views of turbines but also profit from wind development. For example, Grimsby, a port north of Skegness, has become a base for Centrica's construction operations.

More than 60 percent of respondents surveyed in Skegness supported the Lincs project and said that they preferred having turbines at sea rather than on land. But the Norfolk County Council, on the southern side of the Wash, has objected that more development will affect the "wilderness quality" of the coastline and reduce nature-based tourism.



These views reflect national attitudes toward wind power in the U.K., which are similar to those in the United States. In both countries 70 percent to 80 percent of the public considers wind energy a good idea, but hard-line opponents have derailed or delayed many projects. Centrica has worked to win over local communities, and in the U.K. offshore wind so far appears to be a lesser target than onshore wind. Lincolnshire groups with names like BATs (Burton Against Turbines) and BLOT (Belvoir Locals Oppose Turbines) are lobbying against several land-based wind farms, but no such opposition has formed - yet - against Centrica's Wash projects.

* * * *

One big difference between the United States and U.K. is that Labour Party leaders are willing to intervene heavily in energy markets to get projects built. Critics say that the government is running over local concerns. Rural campaigners were irate when climate change secretary Ed Miliband asserted last spring that opposing wind power should be seen as "socially unacceptable ... like not wearing your seatbelt or driving past a zebra crossing [crosswalk]."

"It's a very top-down approach. They've reorganized their government around these issues and created structures to promote development," said Walter Musial, a senior engineer with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "We depend much more on the free market here, and developers assume more risk."

Some British policies would be hard to apply in the United States, but for Musial it's notable that U.K. agencies in charge of approving wind projects are also in charge of assessing national energy needs. "They are responsible for balancing the technologies they're installing against environmental impacts, instead of having those interests compete against each other," he said.

Laurie Jodziewicz, siting manager for the American Wind Energy Association, singles out long-term British support programs like the Renewables Obligation. "These projects have long time frames, especially offshore, so you need long-running policies to show the investment community that you're serious about wind," she said. The United States has awarded tax credits for wind energy production since 1992, but these credits have typically been authorized for one- or two-year periods and have lapsed three times, creating a boom-and-bust pattern for wind development. And the United States has yet to set national renewable electricity targets.

Even if world leaders fail to reach a global deal on long-term climate policy at this month's Copenhagen conference, the Brown government appears committed to driving national economic growth through low-carbon investments. The global credit crunch has slowed renewable energy development worldwide, but the U.K. government is pumping money into clean energy start-ups. The Crown Estate projects that Round 3 of offshore wind development will unleash more than $165 billion in private investment - a surge that one director there has compared to creating Britain's offshore oil and gas industry in the 1970s.

For its part, Centrica plans to start construction in 2010 on Lincs, which it estimates will cost about $1.2 billion. "We will consider the financial case for Docking Shoal and Race Bank further down the line against market conditions," said Barltrop. "But our industry already has very clear guidelines on what needs to be achieved. I think it is unlikely that the challenges we face will be watered down, but we leave that to policy makers and scientists."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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