Wind power is free.  It is a genuinely sustainable energy source, which offers us huge environmental benefits. 

Last month saw the official opening of one of the UK’s greatest feats of modern engineering to date, the London Array – the largest offshore wind farm in the world.  175 wind turbines now generate enough power for 500,000 homes, around two thirds of all homes in Kent.  It has been predicted that the wind farm will lead to a cut in CO2 emissions of more than 925,000 tonnes a year.

The UK also plays host to the world’s second largest offshore wind farm, Greater Gabbard off the East Anglian coast. 

Both of these wind farms were developed as part of what is known as ‘Round 2’ which, as the name suggests, came after the Round 1 of the UK offshore wind farm developments and built on lessons learned.

At the opening of the London Array Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have said: “This project has been built by some of the bravest seaman, some of the most talented engineers, some of the hardest workers, and it’s going to continue to bring benefits to people in Kent for many, many years to come….. I think this demonstrates Britain is a great place to invest.“

For once it appears that government, industry and the environmental charity sector are united in their sense of achievement and purpose.  Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s executive director, was quoted as saying that the London Array is an energy scheme Britain could be "proud of”.

However, he went on to say: “The UK has some of the best renewable energy resources in Europe, but ministers aren’t doing nearly enough to develop this huge potential and create thousands of new jobs.”

We all know that there is opposition to land based wind farms but it is widely recognised that wind energy has the potential to contribute positively to our environmental targets.  The massive offshore renewable energy projects also provide thousands of jobs and help to boost the economy.  Round 3 of offshore wind farm developments was kicked off by Crown Estates (which leases the seabed) in 2009.  Across Europe 277 offshore wind turbines were connected to the grid in the first 181 days of the year, double that of the previous years, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).  This brings the total European capacity to 6,040 MW over 58 wind farms in ten countries.  So what is it that Friends of the Earth think the government isn’t doing enough of?

According to the EWEA, while construction activity and preparatory work for new wind farms which already have funding is high, the financing of new projects has slowed down and only one project has reached financial closure so far in 2013.  A major contributing factor in this is regulatory uncertainty.

The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050, yet the Electricity Market Reform’s (EMR) legislation is only due to be finalised by the end of this year. A key element of the EMR is the introduction of long-term contracts, designed to provide a level of security for project developers.  So, it is no wonder that development has been slow to date but at least by the end of the year there will be a clearer way forward for accelerated development and delivery in the wind energy sector.

But it seems that what will still be missing is a clear indication of the direction of power strategy for the future, which would provide security and support for supply chain investment and project development.  Without this the EMR cannot succeed.  

Going back to David Cameron’s comments at the opening of the London Array, currently the oil and gas industry generates around £27 billion for the UK each year and support 440,000 jobs.  The engineering prowess the UK demonstrates in this sector and the sophisticated technology that is designed and installed offshore all over the globe by UK companies, is very similar to that required by wind farms.  So, with both technology and skills transferable, there is surely an opportunity for the UK to drive its recovery through high tech renewables technology. 

But with a growing skills shortage, particularly in engineering, already evident in the existing energy sector, it is difficult to see how the demands of this emerging industry will be serviced.  Perhaps the prospect of a career path in renewables is more attractive than one in existing energy sectors and maybe, therefore, industry, education and government are missing a trick in their collaborative efforts to market engineering careers to school children.  With a focus on careers in renewables, maybe the skills shortage could be more effectively addressed and a whole new generation of young men and women could be drawn to complete engineering degrees. 

On a lighter note and harping back to our very serious opening statement about wind being a sustainable energy source, one remaining question the Conscious Communications team has on the topic of wind farms is whether the ‘farming’ of wind makes it less windy?  We found our answer here in Popsci: unless and until wind farms are omnipresent we surmise that there are only upsides. 

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