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U.K.: Wind-Power Plan Stirs Up Controversy

  • Jan Jun

The British government has published an ambitious new plan for wind power to supply electricity to 15 percent of homes in the United Kingdom by 2010. The plan comes amid revelations that Britain -- like California -- could face power outages this winter, because existing power plants are being closed too quickly. From London, Jan Jun reports for RFE/RL.

London, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An ambitious plan but forward by Britain's Department of Trade and Industry aims to put the U.K. among the world's top consumers of renewable energy by the end of the decade.

The plan envisages that by 2010, some 15 percent of Britain's electricity needs will be provided by wind power. Some 3,000 wind turbines are to be built in Britain's shallow coastal waters, allowing for the gradual closure of coal-fired and nuclear stations.

Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said the plan could also create an economic boom similar to the manufacturing and construction bonanza that accompanied the North Sea oil exploration. Another potential perk of the plan is that it may cut Britain's carbon dioxide emissions by some 15 million tons a year.

David Porter heads Britain's Association of Electricity Producers. He tells RFE/RL that while he supports the plan, he still has his doubts: "It depends on the funding available for big renewable energy projects, and it depends as well on the confidence that the market has in the government's policies. And, of course, governments promote renewable energy in good faith, but politicians sometimes are liable to change policies. And the renewable energy industry, I know, wants to have the confidence that the government in the U.K. really means what it says."

Porter points out that at present, Britain's offshore wind farms produce just over 1 percent of the country's electricity -- despite the fact that wind power is one of the most competitive renewable energies. He adds there is enormous potential for the U.K. to become a leader in wind-power generation and point the way for developing countries around the world.

The plan has also met with an enthusiastic reception from environmental groups as well as the British Wind Energy Association, which foresees thousands of new jobs being created.

Charles Thompson handles media relations for Britain's Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). He tells RFE/RL the ICE is "delighted" the government is making a commitment to sustainable, renewable energy sources in the U.K. He says the plan will play a vital role in fueling the British economy for many years to come. Still, he says, he has a certain reservation.

"The one caveat we place over that is that renewable energy alone, and particularly wind alone, cannot adequately provide the entire base for the U.K.'s energy needs," he said. "Certainly, the ICE would be very keen to see increased investment in all sorts of renewable energies but, yes, the requirements for safe and secure energy for the future are precisely that diversity of supply. It should not be a case of putting all our eggs into one basket. The wind only blows one-third of the time."

Others are even more critical. They say the every 6 megawatts of wind power will require 4 megawatts of back-up conventional power -- something that will not be available if the government moves ahead with plans to shut down its coal-burning and nuclear-power generators.

There are other objections as well. Some economists argue that wind electricity is only attractive to the government because the price of wind power is nearly three times that of fossil-fuel electricity. In Denmark, where wind farms are widely used, electricity is twice as expensive as in the U.K., and carbon dioxide emissions have risen regardless of the supposed environmental benefits.

It may also take as many as 22 years to pay off the investment in wind turbines -- and then, only if they work above expected capacity. Since most turbines have a working lifespan of just 20 years, some say the plan seems fundamentally askew. Many question whether the turbine plan will be able to tempt any investment at all.

Thompson says the best approach is to use a combination of various renewable sources of electricity generation in the future: "That will include gas, that will include possibly cleaner-burning coal-fired stations, so that we can still meet environmental commitments, and yes, the possibility is that may also include a future nuclear capability."

David Porter of the Association of Electricity Producers says the price of wind power must become competitive in order for the turbine project to succeed: "The answer in the longer term is bound to be one where price is a consideration. It always will be, and the most competitive renewable energies will be the ones that succeed."

Some observers are urging the British government to hold off on shutting down its nuclear-power plants. A commentary in the "Times" newspaper says: "Would it not be ironical if, having closed our own nuclear stations, we face an energy crisis and have to buy electricity generated overseas, probably from France, where 75 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power?

Last week's massive power outage in North America has added fuel to Britain's energy debate, with some newspapers speculating that the current shutdown of coal power stations could leave many Britons facing their own power outages by Christmas.