UK Wind Plans Could Spin Off Course

Despite the winds of green job creation starting to blow across the U.S., the UK’s ambitious goal of supplying a third of its electricity from wind by 2020 is starting to look like it could be unachievable. That’s the assessment according to an investigation by the Observer, which also says wind industry leaders will issue the same warning at a high-profile British wind conference this week.

The UK is aiming to meet 15 percent of its energy needs with renewable power by 2020, and that translates into wind power supplying 36 percent of its electricity. The problem is that the U.K. currently generates just 4 percent of its electricity with wind, and as the Observer assesses: “No country has tried to switch its electricity supply so quickly on this scale.”

Even if the growth rate is technically doable, the Observer notes that there’s an overwhelming number of obstacles in the way: escalating costs of offshore wind farms (double the cost of onshore wind), bottlenecks in planning and approving sites, a lack of engineers, backups in the supply chain, potential NIMBY-ism and a lack of grid infrastructure. Any of these limitations could easily derail the extremely aggressive target, and taken together they start to look insurmountable.

One of the biggest hurdles is the cost of building offshore wind farms. The largest of these projects is the London Array project, which has been proposed for a 90-square-mile site 12 miles off the coast of England, near the mouth of the Thames. When fully completed, the project could contain up to 341 turbines, would generate 1 GW of electricity, and reportedly cost £2.5 billion ($4.3 billion). But back in May oil giant Shell decided to sell its 33 percent share in the wind farm, which was met by loud criticism in the British press. Last week Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s multibillion-dollar clean technology initiative, announced that it had decided to grab a 20 percent stake in the project.

But even when Britain started to detail its wind plans, the British Wind Energy Association (the trade group that is throwing the conference this week) was vocal about how difficult the target would be to meet. The BWEA estimated back then that a goal of 20 GW, not 33 GW, would be more realistic in that timeframe. Now with the financial turmoil effecting the UK, too, we’ll see if that lowered ‘reasonable estimate’ will even be feasible to meet.