Guardian Environment Network

This Guardian story was written by reporter Terry Macalister. Grist is a member of the Guardian’s Environment Network.


The Crown Estate, holder of the Queen’s property, has helped trigger a resurgence of interest for wind projects in the deep waters off Britain by promising to invest in projects at a time when schemes are struggling in the face of planning delays and other problems.

The decision by the Crown Estate to pay up to half of all pre-construction development costs has brought a huge surge in applications for the latest round of licensing, with almost 100 companies wanting to build wind farms far into the North Sea.

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“The Crown Estate offering to be a development partner takes away much of the cost and uncertainty with third-round projects, which is why we have seen so much interest in the latest licensing round,” said Adam Bruce, chairman of the British Wind Energy Association, on the eve of its annual conference to be opened by Gordon Brown today.

The organization has also showed its willingness to be at the forefront of the battle against climate change recently by agreeing to buy the world’s biggest wind turbine, the 7.5-megawatt Clipper Windpower MBE prototype, codenamed Project Britannia. The turbine, said to be powerful enough to provide power for 5,500 homes, is under construction in Blyth, Northumberland, and will be towed out and erected in the North Sea.

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Although deep-water projects are expensive, they could be far more efficient because they could utilize larger turbines and take advantage of stronger prevailing winds, said Bruce. “Unlike onshore wind schemes, the operator is also only dealing with one planning regime and one landlord in the Crown Estate, which is now offering to be a partner.”

The organization, which has responsibility for licensing the seabed up to 200 miles out for renewable projects, will help pay for the cost of undertaking studies on what impact plans would have on shipping and marine life. The cost of doing that will later be clawed back from revenues once the wind turbines are turning.

Ninety-six companies expressed their interest by last month in becoming involved in the third licensing round, far more than in previous rounds. The Crown Estate is considering the offers and will make a firm decision on who will win the chance to proceed with schemes on 11 favoured zones.

A spokeswoman for the Crown Estate said the response to the licensing round had “greatly exceeded our expectations”. The body, which owns parts of Regent Street as well as 55% of Britain’s foreshore, traces its history back to George III, who swapped much of his land for a fixed income from the Treasury. It is independent of the monarch and the government.

The interest in deep-water projects is a welcome boost for the industry, which is still hobbled by problems that ministers have endlessly promised to sort out.

A new planning bill is meant to streamline projects but the BWEA pointed out yesterday in a new review that half of the seven gigawatts of wind capacity stuck in the planning system is located in Scotland and not covered by the legislation and a further 3.5GW is represented by schemes below a 50-megawatt threshold.

There are still difficulties with the ministry of defense and the aviation sector over the alleged threat to radar coverage posed by wind turbines. The government has again promised to bang heads together to prevent this delaying schemes but problems remain.

“It is currently not possible to quantify the risk to a project from an aviation perspective,” says the BWEA. “The objections cannot be easily predicted, and a pre-planning statement of no objection is not always valid through the planning process.”

The prime minister will reiterate his determination to clear any logjams and ensure wind farming reaches its potential. Brown will say that his decision to create a new self-standing energy and climate change department is proof of how seriously he takes global warming and energy security.

The Carbon Trust will today announce that it has reached agreement with five major energy companies under which £30 million (about $50 million) will be invested in finding ways to reduce the cost of offshore wind by at least 10 percent.

Airtricity, ScottishPower Renewables and StatoilHydro will work with RWE Innogy and Dong Energy to research and develop ways of cutting costs and improving efficiency at wind farms at a time of mounting concern that rising costs are chasing investors away from renewables.

The move comes only days after the Carbon Trust, an organization established by government to help speed up the introduction of clean energy, published a report showing that the government would fail to meet its offshore-wind goals unless a variety of measures were introduced. Among the proposals was that permission be given to develop a new generation of wind farms much closer to shore.