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Massive Offshore UK Wind Farm Gets Green Light From Investors

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Is that the wind you’re hearing? No, it’s a collective sigh of relief from UK wind advocates. Plans for the world’s largest offshore wind farm have been given the green light from investors — Danish utility DONG Energy, German energy company E.ON and Abu Dhabi’s clean energy initiative Masdar — ending uncertainty as to whether or not they would move forward with the 1-gigawatt London Array in the midst of the economic downturn.

The future of the project, slated for the Thames Estuary off the coast of London, fell into question after Shell pulled out of it last year. Masdar stepped in to help fill the void, only to raise concern again in January when it said it was revisiting the economics of the project.

Falling UK power prices, the weakening British pound and rising credit costs have threatened those economics, according to Reuters. But investors decided to go ahead with their plans after the British government said it would raise support for offshore wind farms in its 2009 budget.

The London Array represents a crucial step toward meeting the UK’s goal of building 30-35 gigawatts of wind capacity, with about 20 gigawatts of that coming from offshore wind, by 2050. That would make up 40-47 percent of the country’s electricity-generating capacity today, although it will be a smaller percentage if energy consumption grows.

If the UK succeeds, the country’s energy mix will definitely be greener. But all that wind will also bring its own set of challenges, as wind power is intermittent — the wind doesn’t blow steadily, or necessarily when energy is most needed.

Just ask Denmark. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind power accounted for 23.8 percent of Denmark’s electricity-generating capacity in 2007, with 3.1 gigawatts of installed wind capacity, which translated into 19.7 percent of the country’s electricity generation. But according to a 2005 paper by ICE Civil Engineering, the country exports most of its wind electricity to neighboring countries that can balance out the fluctuating amounts of wind power they receive with hydropower.

Michael Liebreich, CEO of research firm New Energy Finance, said the country discovered one of the consequences of so much wind on a particularly windy day, when it ended up with higher-than-normal frequency on its electrical lines. But he said it’s essential for a region to reach substantial amounts of renewable energy and to figure out how to overcome the issues that arise. Dealing with these challenges now will help spark the smart grid advances that other countries will need to reach their renewable energy goals as well.