Britain Reaffirms Big Commitment to Offshore Wind

Six years ago IEEE Spectrum reported about  the British stealing a march on the Danes and Germans, with very ambitious plans for offshore wind energy. Those plans have evolved somewhat more slowly than hoped, but this last week the UK reaffirmed its commitment to offshore wind with refurbished plans that are more ambitious than ever. If technological challenges can be surmounted and adequate financing secured, the additional offshore wind turbines installed in the coming decade will be equivalent to about half the country's total current capacity.

The contracts announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown involve many of Europe's best-known energy companies and contractors, from Sweden's Vattenfall to Germany's Hochtief. Some of them such as Vestas, Siemens, Statkraft, and Statoil have considerable experience working in deep waters, but even so, the program will pose immense challenges. As the New York Times commented in a report, turbine towers are to be anchored and maintained in waters that are deeper, rougher, and further offshore than ever attempted before.

The total cost of installing as much as 32 GW in new offshore wind capacity is estimated at 75-100 billion British pounds--as much as $160 billion. But that may be conservative. Even the highest estimated costs are in the range of $5-6 per installed watt, which appears to be lower than the average global cost of installing wind today, both on land and offshore. Perhaps the estimates assume that with technology advances costs will come down, but that's not to be taken for granted. Costs may actually go up as wind is installed in less and less hospitable surroundings.

The Financial Times worries that the program will not be realized without adequate government guarantees for financing, especially with subsidies for wind scheduled to come down in 2014. But don't underestimate England's experience and resolve. Since 2004 it has installed 700 MW of wind offshore, which is between a third and a half of the global offshore total.

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