The UK Government’s position on renewable technologies is preventing investment in the latest hi-tech turbines which is leaving Britain behind. The UK Government appears to have made a conscious decision to distance itself from onshore wind just as the industry is emerging as a viable contender to other generation methods. The removal of subsidies is obstructing the use of new technology that can significantly reduce costs and is preventing the wind industry from offering one of the cheapest forms of energy in the UK.
Over the last twenty years costs have come down by 80% and have reduced by 50% in the US since 2009. The average purchase prices for wind power in the US have fallen to the once unthinkable level of $0.0235 per KWh according to the US energy Department. At this level, wind competes with coal or gas, even without a carbon tax which is increasingly likely to be introduced following the COP21 climate change agreement in Paris.
Industry leaders believe that they can compete against any other source of energy in the UK without need for state support but only if the Government removes obstructions. The UK has a tip-height restriction guideline of 125 metres however the new generation of turbines are well above that level. Latest models peak at 140 metres, capture greater the wind current and have bigger rotors that completely change the economics of wind power. Without the use of new technologies the wind industry will struggle to compete. The new technology has complex electronics, feeding ‘smart data’ from sensors back to a central computer system. They have better gear boxes and hi-tech blades that raise yield and lower noise.
Half of all new turbines in Sweden are between 170 and 200 metres, while the latest projects in Germany average 165 meters. Current restrictions mean that the UK is being left behind in international markets. The size of the new wind turbines is a significant issue in Britain although the industry believes that they are less intrusive than installing greater numbers of smaller towers. Whilst there is no fixed height limit, the guidelines for local governments imply a 125 meter cap which is often reduced to nearer 100 metre and the planning obstacles are a nightmare for the industry. Rural activists vehemently oppose further onshore expansion for a mix of reasons, often to protect the countryside and migrating birds. One application was turned down on fears that blade-noise would startle race-horses. Britain is currently at risk of being seen as a ‘not in my back yard’ nation.
There is also frustration that the Government is changing the rules in an erratic fashion and imposing guidelines that effectively freeze development of onshore wind. Amber Rudd, Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, drastically revised the renewables policy last year, announcing that support for onshore wind would be cut from April 2016. At the time it was acknowledged that 250 wind farms in the planning phase were unlikely to be built as a result but Rudd insisted that Britain was “reaching the limits of what is affordable, and what the public is prepared to accept”.
The world added a record 51 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity last year, almost 40% of this was in China. Global capacity is 370GW, three and a half times Britain’s entire electricity market. A recent study by the International Energy Agency suggested that China’s wind power capacity could reach 200GW by 2020, 400 GW by 2030, and 1,000GW by 2050. As technology improves, there are no insurmountable barriers to realising these ambitious targets.
Britain has 8.5GW of onshore wind capacity and 5GW of offshore. Wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December. The UK still makes up half the world’s offshore wind power, taking advantage of shallow banks that keep costs down. The Government is backing further expansion, expected to reach a total capacity of 11GW by 2020. This is a far more expensive option than onshore and requires the sorts of subsidies needed for the nuclear industry to be successful. It seems ironic that onshore wind growth in Britain is coming to an end for political reasons just as the technology advances mean that wind finally makes sense on a commercial basis.