The Conservative Party’s outright win of the UK general election came as an unwelcome surprise to many in the UK onshore wind sector although, even under the previous coalition, stories of arguments and party fault lines over the issue of onshore wind abounded. Last week’s news of a potential early end to the ROC regime will do little to calm industry nerves.
Certainly, consents had all but dried up in England and on the face of it there is reason for anxiety within the onshore sector. The Queen’s speech of 27th May specifically stated that onshore wind projects of more than 50 MW are to be determined locally rather than decided by the minister as is the case with other generating technologies.
Many see the recently introduced Contracts For Difference (CFD) mechanism as the final nail in the coffin for onshore wind in the UK. CFD with its limited allocation caps and guaranteed base price is not renewable specific as it was under the ROC regime. There is little by way of uplift and the addition of an extra layer of risk late in the development cycle makes onshore wind less attractive to investors.
A more detached view however reveals an industry that has enjoyed a remarkably successful two decades and if it focuses on the relevant opportunities and exports its skills, it can still enjoy a prosperous future.
As with offshore wind, the industry is aware that cost reduction is essential for onshore wind’s viability and long-term future; there must be competition on price with non-renewable energy to levelise the cost of energy to the grid. A whole raft of policy papers seek to address the issue, with the focus being on incremental savings in areas such as grid, components and the utilising of larger turbines with subsequent economies of scale.
Larger machines may provide economies but one of the principle reasons for wind farm refusals is the landscape and visual aspect. When I was Project Manager in the industry we gained consent for a site with a maximum tip height of 199.5m at Hunterston in Scotland; this has since been built with an operational Siemens 6MW machine of 169m to tip, making it the highest in the UK. Whether this size of turbine will prove unpalatable to communities and stakeholders if rolled out more widely remains to be seen.
So if the machine can’t get any bigger where can onshore go in the UK?
There are a couple of areas where growth may be likely: the first is building up the ability of local authorities to become generators themselves. A relatively ignored law emerged from the coalition to enable this and it will be interesting to see which authorities are proactive. There are benefits to this approach as planners are often already aware of suitable sites and the ability to generate revenue for the community may be attractive to local stakeholders. Whether the public sector, unused to wind farm development, can replicate the dynamism shown by the private sector to go from a standing start to an installed onshore capacity of 8GW over the last 20 years remains to be seen.
A second area is not wind farms per se, but rather individual turbines. Previously, utility and other large scale developers were able to exploit economies of scale by adding in more turbines to maximise yield. Now however, due to Feed In Tariff (FIT) banding, smaller schemes of up to 5MW are increasingly attractive to investors including landowners and communities as these smaller projects are more easily consented. The National Farmers Union believes that nearly three quarters of farmers are open to generating from renewables on their land and a number of new machines are emerging in response to this potential market.
Curiously, although one of the main criticisms against onshore wind farms has been on the basis of cost, wind does not necessarily scale down effectively and these farm-based wind proposals are more expensive per generated MWh. As for the scale of the opportunity, figures from the Farm Power Coalition indicate that up to 10GW of potential generation could be available in the UK – this is more than the output of all the currently operational onshore wind farms in the UK.
Further opportunities exist such as the re-powering of existing sites; many onshore wind farms are approaching the end of their lives and as technology has moved on, the same footprint can yield significantly more energy. An example with which the author was Project Manager was at Delabole in Cornwall; a site of ten 400KW machines was replanted with only four machines, the site’s output rose by a factor of nearly two and a half times with capacity rising from 4 to 9.2 MW. A re-power such as this can be relatively straightforward especially if community relations have been good throughout the previous life of the site, additionally, a re-powering application is often viewed more favourably by planners than a fresh proposal.
A further and often overlooked opportunity lies in the specialist merchant wind sector, here the bulk of the energy feeds into an onsite user. As grid export is of secondary importance to these schemes then it follows that the CFD price carries much less financial weight to the project. With many manufacturing industries spending vast sums on their energy bills the notion of generating on site can be most attractive.
Onshore wind has enjoyed remarkable success over the last two decades, going from zero to over 8GW installed and whilst there are challenges ahead, if the industry continues to be flexible and entrepreneurial in its response to new opportunities there is fertile ground on which to grow.
Article by Taylor Keogh Associate Charley Rattan
Charley has a wealth of experience as a renewable energy developer, implementer and constructor. He has worked in the onshore and offshore wind sectors, most recently with SSE where he completed three and a half years at the Centre for Excellence in Renewable Engineering… read more