Why the UK is 'Embracing the Revolution'

Over the past year, the UK wind industry has doubled in strength and size, yet its future still remains surrounded by increasing uncertainty. Alison Hill of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) sets the record straight.

The UK wind industry has once again been ranked as the foremost market for wind power in the world. The countrys wind resource, the strong offshore development regime and the market security afforded by the Renewables Obligation all combine to place the UK firmly at the forefront of this green industrial revolution, worth an annual £4.5 billion in Europe alone.

For an industry which generates only 0.5% of UK electricity supply and which, until recently, had an annual installation rate of a mere 50 MW, this may seem to be a somewhat optimistic assessment. But the evidence to justify this is steadily mounting, not least of which is the 24-hour hat trick of consents for over 300 MW of new wind capacity at the beginning of October.

Strength through uncertainty

To date this year, 30 new wind energy projects have been consented, equating to a 75% approval rate, and totalling some 770 MW. This compares with a current total installed capacity of 770 MW, meaning that in one year, as much has been consented as was constructed during the industry's 13-year history. An additional 1,700 MW of projects previously consented, both on and offshore, are either under or awaiting construction, meaning that the UK wind industry has a total 2.5 GW of approved projects, representing some 2.5% of UK electricity supply when built.

Yet, these successes are being played out against a backdrop of perceived increasing uncertainty about the role of the wind industry in the UKs future power portfolio. Some media friendly and influential opponents, and rumours and reports worthy of a congressional hearing and a wind farm proposal in the back yard of no less a person than the leader of the Opposition have led to a teetering in the once-guaranteed political support for the technology.

Meanwhile the public support would also seem to be on the wane, with opposition groups reportedly springing up like mushrooms across the UK - who after all would argue with David Bellamy when he decries wind turbines?

So amid cries of inefficiency and blots on the landscape, the government is being heavily criticized for putting all its eggs in the wind basket and making doubtful the ability of this country to meet its targets on climate change. Increased energy efficiency and a diverse renewables portfolio are both laudable and desirable, but unfortunately converting every household to energy efficient light bulbs is not enough to address the scale of the challenge and with the best will in the world, other renewable technologies quite simply arent ready to deliver in the quantities needed. For, lets face it, wind power is the only renewable currently available which can generate meaningful amounts of electricity along with significant greenhouse gas reductions by 2010.

Is wind power the answer?

The perceived unpopularity of onshore wind development has led many to suggest that the industry be moved offshore - out of sight and out of mind. That this brings with it cost implications and too large a responsibility for what is after all a nascent industry aside, we already are, with offshore sites expected to provide half of the contribution of the wind sector to the 2010 target  equivalent to some 4,000 MW, matched by an equal amount onshore.

Meanwhile, to those that believe that wind quite simply doesnt work, their preferred solution is nuclear, which has the advantage of being carbon-neutral, but unfortunately also has the contentious disadvantages of waste-handling, decommissioning not to mention a long lead in time.

However, what is often lost among the rhetoric is this is not - and should not be seen as - a contest between the nuclear and wind industries. There is no doubt that wind is capable of meeting 10% or even 20% of UK electricity supply, what is less certain is how the other 80% will be met  and at what price. This year, for the first time ever, the UK imported more fossil fuels than it exported. Meanwhile prices of domestic gas and electricity have already increased as crude oil reaches an all-time high of over $50 per barrel, and all this before the introduction of European-wide carbon emission trading. With a known fuel risk, wind power comes out well on top of that particular league table.

Nor has the publication of new planning guidelines for renewable energy been welcomed with open arms. Whether deliberate or not, certain peoples reading of the Office of the Deputy Prime Ministers revised Planning Policy Statement 22 is that it is a presumption in favour of wind energy and rides roughshod over the wishes of local communities. In reality PPS22 is simply a stepping stone in the renewables revolution; the missing link between government energy policy in light of this countrys national, European and international commitments on climate change and project delivery on the ground. And far from ignoring local communities, PPS22 in fact advocates greater involvement in the process. Overall, PPS22 provides clear guidance for local decision makers to weigh up the potential impacts of local developments against their contributions to the bigger pictures of combating climate change and keeping the lights on in Britain.

Reflection of public opinion

The medias adoption of the wind energy opponent, whether political, professional or public, as the only voice to be heard in this debate is therefore worrying indeed. For this voice is but a minority, whos decrying of the technology is often based on misunderstandings at best and wilful ignorance at worst.

There is a long tradition of support for wind energy in the UK with opinion poll after opinion poll showing consistently high levels in favour of the technology, with this support increasing once a project has been built and highest of all among the residents near wind farms  and who better qualified to have an opinion of the impacts of this technology upon their daily lives than those with such direct experience of a working wind farm. Yet, the voice of Mrs X, who renamed her house Turbine View, or Mr Y, who built a sun porch especially so he can enjoy the vista of his local wind turbines, has no weight, it would seem. But we know theyre out there.

Hence Embrace the Revolution, a major new campaign by the British Wind Energy Association which gives these people a voice. Launched with the results of a new opinion poll which shows that the majority of the population - 74% - agree that wind farms are necessary to help meet current and future energy needs in the UK, despite the vocal campaign against their expansion, Embrace the Revolution will unite those in favour of wind energy and challenge the myths that wind farms are unpopular, noisy and a blot on the landscape.

For that is what the nay saying of wind energy in all too many cases is, a myth, Chinese whispers which over time have been twisted and turned into what many now consider as fact. To redress the balance, BWEAs campaign does some straight talking about the true costs of wind energy, and what happens when the wind stops blowing, and why there wont be tens of thousands of turbines despoiling the UK landscape.

And with the profile raising celebrity champions, media personalities, environmentalists, designers and architects who have all pledged their support, along with everyday people who are happy to stand up and be counted as champions of their local wind farm, this side of the story might finally get the chance to be heard.

Only 3 weeks old and already over 7,000 names have signed up at Embrace the Revolution, proof positive that the government has got it right on wind power, and that the UK is truly embracing the renewables revolution - a message that the British Wind Energy Association will be spreading far and wide.

Alison Hill is Head of Communications at the BWEA. For more information, please visit http://www.bwea.com


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wind energy

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Energy efficiency & low-carbon
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