RENEWABLE ENERGY:

U.K. expands its commitment to massive offshore wind power

LONDON -- The U.K. government has announced the winners of the next major expansion round of offshore wind power as part of its ambitious plans to more than quintuple the amount of wind-driven electricity generation within a decade and help slash the nation's carbon emissions.

The nine sites in the third round of offshore licenses mostly dotted around the North Sea of the United Kingdom's east coast are supposed to be able to produce about 32 gigawatts of electricity by 2020, compared to the 4 gigawatts already operating on and offshore and the 1.7 gigawatts under construction. (A gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, is the equivalent output of one large nuclear power plant.)

"Our island has one of the best wind energy resources in Europe, and today's news shows we are creating the right conditions for the energy industry to invest in harnessing it," Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband said.

"This is one of the strongest signals yet that the U.K. is locked irreversibly into a low-carbon, energy-secure, prosperous future," he added.

Illustrating the international nature of the $120 billion project, a consortium including the U.K. unit of Germany's RWE, Scottish and Southern Energy and Norway's Statoil and Statkraft took the biggest, 9 GW, zone, Dogger Bank, 100 kilometers off the English coast.

Scottish Power, a subsidiary of Spain's Iberdrola, and Sweden's state-owned Vattenfall won the 7.2 GW parcel, also off the coast of the English county of Norfolk, while a consortium of Portuguese wind energy specialist EDP Renovaveis and U.K. offshore specialist SeaEnergy Renewables won the 1.3 GW parcel off the Scottish coast in the Moray Firth.

SSE Energy and Fluor won the 3.5 GW zone in Scotland's Firth of Forth, while a consortium of Mainstream Renewable Power, Siemens Project Ventures and Hochtief Construction won the 4.0 GW Hornsea zone.

Winners in the other four zones included Germany's E.ON Climate and Renewables, Eneco New Energy, RWE Npower Renewables, Centrica Renewable Energy and RES Group.

Pushed by looming fuel shortage and aging power plants

Construction on the new sites -- at least one of which is in a highly sensitive environmental area -- is supposed to begin during 2014, with completion just six years later.

In the meantime, the United Kingdom faces other pressing power problems because almost a quarter of the country's 80 GW of electricity capacity is likely to be retired by 2016 due to old age. Another 15 GW is either closed or severely restricted under E.U. plant emission regulations.

In the past decade, the country has become increasingly reliant on dwindling supplies of natural gas imported from the North Sea fields, so the government is eager to find replacement power sources, among which wind features heavily.

Looming supply shortfalls became more evident last week when the country's National Grid energy agency was forced twice to declare gas balancing alerts -- indicating an imminent shortage of the fuel -- when supplies from abroad suddenly dropped while demand was at record levels as arctic conditions swept the country.

There was even one report of pensioners buying old books to burn to beat the cold. With fuel prices moving sharply higher, the books were cheaper than coal or other fuels.

The third offshore round is a key part of that process to reduce reliance on imported energy.

It is a huge technological undertaking. The offshore sites are in depths of up to 60 meters -- and in the case of Dogger Bank, a considerable distance away from the mainland. The projects will be further complicated by a world shortage of the needed construction barges and the turbines themselves as demand for wind power equipment rises sharply around the world.

Ambitious, perhaps unreachable, target

Experts raise the question of just how so many turbines can be produced and installed in such a short time and in stretches of sea that that are notorious for bad weather. With modern turbines averaging around 2.5 MW capacity, more than 10,000 such windmills may be necessary to meet the 32 GW planned -- although research is under way to build massive 10 MW machines.

Even starting now, that means installing 1,000 a year. Beginning in four years and leaving just six for construction and installation raises that figure to nearly 1,700 a year, or about four a day, every day.

Pushed by its own legislation on cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as well as E.U. rules on renewable energy, the government's overall target is to get at least 33 GW of wind power capacity installed by 2020.

It says it is confident it can meet that highly demanding target, but others suggest that a figure of about half that is more realistic.

In its "Low Carbon Transition Plan" published last July, the government said it aimed to get 40 percent of the country's electricity from low-carbon sources by 2020, including renewables, new nuclear power plants and fossil-fueled generation using carbon capture and storage technology.

While it has passed laws to streamline the creaking planning system that has bedeviled major infrastructure projects for years, and several energy companies have expressed serious interest in building new nuclear plants, there are still major problems, including finance and waste storage.

At the same time, there has been little progress in bringing forward commercial-scale carbon capture and storage technology.

That puts the burden on renewables, of which wind is by far the most developed in the United Kingdom, although wave and tidal are making serious attempts to prove themselves to the investor community.

Meeting E.U. rules

Under E.U. rules, the United Kingdom must produce 15 percent of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2020.

This equates in practice to getting 35 to 45 percent of its electricity from renewables within a decade, the vast majority of which will be from wind. Currently, the figure stands at about 4 percent.

One major complaint of existing wind farm developers to date has been getting access to the National Grid electricity network, which can take up to a decade from first application. This process is also under review, with a view to streamlining it.

But one major European project that might make the planned U.K. offshore development more attractive is a proposed high-voltage power network to be built under the North Sea from Norway to the United Kingdom and on to Germany and continental Europe.

The nine nations involved -- Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and Norway -- are expected to start preliminary coordination this month, with a formal declaration due this autumn. Construction of the subsea grid is expected to take about 10 years and cost upward of $40 billion.

One goal is to use the undersea line to better balance the highly variable output from onshore and offshore wind, solar, and hydro across northern Europe. The line would eventually feed into the proposed European supergrid, streaming and balancing power in Europe from all sources around the continent.

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