IN DEPTH: Why UK needs onshore

Onshore wind has few obvious allies in the corridors of Westminster these days, where it is often spoken of as yesteryear’s renewable energy.

In the minds of many British politicians, the UK’s renewables future lies at sea — and the sooner it sets sail the better. If only things were so simple.

The glaring problem with this view is that the pathway forward for offshore wind looks far more challenged today than it did a few years ago, and it is increasingly unlikely that it will make the medium-term contribution that politicians have been counting on.

Far from being phased out or forgotten, it is the workhorse onshore sector that will probably form the backbone of the UK’s 2020 renewables effort. And regardless of how quickly offshore gets its act together, onshore will continue to play a major role for decades to come, despite the noises to the contrary.

In the UK, there has been a significant backlash against onshore wind farms (particularly in densely populated England), whipped up by Nimby campaigners and sensationalist anti-wind newspapers such as the influential Daily Mail.

Stories about wind turbines “destroying” the British countryside appear on an almost daily basis in a national press that has largely failed to convey the wrenching choices facing Britain’s energy sector.

And rather than attempting to unpack these issues to help the public better understand them, many politicians simply ride the Nimby tide for their own short-term gain.

“In the four years I’ve been in this business, government has noticeably cooled towards onshore wind because of the challenges on the local level,” says Julia Lynch-Williams, managing director of RWE Innogy UK, one of the country’s largest developers of on- and offshore wind projects. “They obviously see offshore as less of a contentious issue for the public.”

On top of the increasingly vocal anti-wind campaign, the UK onshore sector has seen subsidy cuts (at a time when offshore support is rising), and an increasing shortage of choice locations to site wind farms — all of which has led to fewer new projects being embarked upon.

Project sizes are falling too. In the 12 months to June 2013, for example, there was not a single planning submission made in the UK for an onshore wind project larger than 100MW — compared to four the year before.

However, rather than finding ways to minimise these challenges — building better grids, for example — politicians instead use them to suggest that the sector is slowly being put out to pasture.

“Frankly, we’ve got some [onshore turbines] in the UK — I don’t think we’re going to have a huge amount more,” blurted Prime Minister David Cameron in August last year.

The lack of a substantial local supply chain is also key in explaining the comparatively soft political support for onshore wind.

Just five countries globally — the US, China, Germany, India and Spain — have more installed wind capacity than the UK, but all have significant wind manufacturing bases.

It is far easier to sell the idea of a wind farm to a community, or indeed wind energy to a country, if the turbines are built at a local factory — a fact that makes the UK’s quest for an offshore turbine factory all the more urgent.

Ironically — and in spite of the media’s grotesque devotion to the issue — opposition to wind farms in most parts of the country is actually waning as more projects get built, according to many industry sources.

“The [Nimby] issue is less important than it was,” claims Nigel Crowe, director of project assurance for renewables consultancy TÜV SÜD PMSS, and a veteran of the UK on- and offshore wind sectors. “People are becoming more comfortable with seeing wind turbines in the environment. They’re more intelligent about the issues.”

It is true that onshore wind is the second least popular form of renewable energy in the UK after biomass plants. But that belies the fact that onshore wind is still overwhelmingly popular, with two thirds of Britons supportive, according to the government’s own surveys. By a vast majority, Britons would prefer an onshore wind farm in their local area to a fracking well, polls find.

Much of the credit for improved relations between developers and communities belongs to the developers — who had often made things difficult for themselves through less-than-exemplary behaviour.

The UK will never be like Germany, where community-backed wind farms are the norm. But it turns out that British communities respond very well to sweeteners, such as small ownership stakes in projects, recurring annual payments or reductions in their power bills.

The trade association RenewableUK recommends that wind farm owners offer affected communities a minimum of £5,000 ($8,210) annually for each installed megawatt — far more than many had offered in the past. But developers are also finding that simply engaging with communities — honestly, earnestly and early in the process — makes a huge difference.

“Over the past few years, developers put a lot of time into looking at different approaches, learning from each other about what works,” says Maf Smith, RenewableUK deputy director.

Another natural tailwind for the sector is the growing base of wind-related jobs. Although Britain will probably never play host to a major onshore turbine factory, the number of onshore-wind manufacturing jobs has grown steadily — the tower segment representing one notable example — while O&M jobs will continue to mushroom in the years ahead.

In 2011, for example, steelwork specialist Mabey Bridge sank £38m into a new facility in South Wales to make onshore turbine towers, following in the footsteps of SSE-backed Wind Towers Scotland (whose plant in Campbeltown was once owned by Vestas).

The Welsh factory, which now employs more than 200 people, “has quickly become a major contributor [to the business]... and we see it as a key driver of growth into the future”, Mark Coia, managing director of Mabey Bridge Energy and Marine, tells Recharge.

Given the relative youth of the UK’s onshore wind sector, there is also huge scope for jobs growth in areas such as repowering.

Crowe notes that most projects built in Britain ten or 15 years ago employ turbines rated at less than 1MW. “Local communities — which have come to love wind because the pubs are full of technicians — are only too pleased to have a repowering, where it only adds another few metres on the tip height,” he says.

There are many reasons why onshore wind should be an easier sell in Britain in the years ahead. But the sector’s most compelling argument is simply that the country cannot live without it.

Despite government protestations to the contrary, the UK has an immensely challenging task ahead in meeting its binding 2020 renewables targets. Its current plan calls for 30% of the country’s electricity to come from green energy by the end of the decade, up from 13.2% in the most recent quarter. In the absence of a hugely aggressive offshore wind build-out — a prospect that looks shaky at best — the gap is alarming.

Onshore wind is already the workhorse of the UK’s renewables fleet, accounting for 25% of the country’s renewable generation during the most recent quarter , and that was a weak performance due to low wind speeds.

It is true that, if project originations do not pick up, the flow of projects coming on line may dry up in the years ahead. But from now until at least 2020, there is a huge pipeline of projects already moving through system.

The government’s own conservative estimates see onshore installed capacity nearly doubling over the next half-decade, from about 7GW today (the UK currently has about 3.6GW of installed offshore wind). And that growth will not just come from small, community-backed projects, as many politicians like to pretend.

There are still enormous onshore wind farms under development or construction in the UK, such as Vattenfall’s 228MW Pen y Cymoedd, which broke ground last month in Wales, and will be the UK’s largest onshore wind farm outside Scotland.

It is still possible that the UK will have more wind capacity offshore than onshore in 2020. But that likelihood seems to dwindle by the month. And compared to the enormous uncertainty enveloping the offshore sector, onshore wind looks like a paragon of reliability.

National Grid’s recent modelling suggests the UK will have 11-13GW of utility-scale onshore wind installed in 2020 — a needle-threading estimate compared to the 8-15GW range it puts on offshore wind.

Furthermore, in concentrating on the visual impact of onshore wind farms, British politicians conveniently overlook another hugely important political issue of the moment: the rising cost of energy.

Lynch-Williams points out that onshore wind currently needs only about half the subsidy of offshore wind.

“That’s quite a difference,” she says. “Offshore still has some way to go, and that’s something the government seems to keep forgetting in their thinking.

“If part of what they need to do is deliver the lowest cost solution to UK plc, then onshore has to play a part in it. Not only because it’s cheapest, but because it’s proven.”

No-one doubts the monumental scale of the opportunity presented by Britain’s offshore wind industry, and politicians are right to champion it. But doing so at the expense of the onshore sector — already in full bloom — would be a grave and unnecessary mistake.