World's largest offshore wind farm plan given a stormy reception

Bill Boggia remembers well the last time Graveney was gripped by fears of invasion having arrived in this village of saltmarsh and sunken lanes in north-east Kent in 1940.

Then it was the Nazis who threatened to emerge from the shallow waters of Whitstable Bay. Now Mr Boggia, 77, and some 200 local residents are digging in for what they consider to be another struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Cleve Hill, a gentle slope of arable land above the village, has been chosen by the consortium building the London Array wind farm for the construction of the electricity sub-station which will "land" undersea cables carrying 1,000 megawatts of power generated by its 341 turbines.

It is a vital part of what will be the world's biggest offshore wind farm, generating along with a second scheme off nearby Thanet, enough electricity to power nearly a million homes.

The £2bn project announced yesterday by Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling and the Environment Secretary David Miliband, has been hailed as a landmark in Britain's battle to reduce CO2 and combat global warming.

"We expect this will be the first of a number of large-scale offshore windfarms in the UK ," said Mr Miliband. "We are reinforcing the UK's commitment to renewable energy and combating climate change and ocean acidification," he added.

The news received the blessing of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which dropped its opposition to the Thames Estuary schemes after assurances over breeding birds.

But Mr Boggia, whose family owns and runs several caravan parks around Graveney, is unconvinced. Pointing to the patchwork of medieval fields that stretches out from his living room on the side of the hill, he said: "I'm more worried about what these plans will do to this landscape and our way of life than I ever was about a Nazi invasion on the beach. We have spent 50 years since the Second World War battling to ensure that this unique habitat is not changed or scarred by big developments. We're not going to be beaten by this one either."

London Array, led by Shell and the German power conglomerate E.ON, argues that Cleve Hill, situated 800 metres from the shore, is the only suitable site for its £3m sub-station after producing an exhaustive study which considered factors from cost and accessibility to the impact on shipping lanes and bird life.

This summer, the local Swale Borough Council's planning committee threw out an application to build the sub-station, housing eight massive transformers, despite a recommendation from its officers to approve the development. The matter will be resolved by an independent planning inspector at a public inquiry scheduled to take place next March.

Much is at stake for the Government, which is committed to meeting 20 per cent of Britain's energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. To do so, it must massively expand the number of windfarms. The Thames Estuary schemes - six times bigger than anything else in the world - will supply 1,300 megawatts of energy - nearly doubling the existing supply of wind power.

Offshore wind farms offer the greatest potential for renewable energy. Invisible from land, they have not faced the noisy opposition encountered by onshore schemes, which critics say destroy the splendour of the natural landscape. While it is estimated a third of the UK's electricity could one day be generated offshore, take up has been slow, partly because of the increased costs.

"So far development offshore has been disappointing and hasn't lived up to the Government's aspirations," said Rob Gross, head of policy at the UK Energy Research Centre and a co-author of the 2002 Energy Review. "The premier reason is because the Government underestimated the amount of support it would have to give to get a new technology off the ground," he said.

In Graveney, however, feelings are running high. Tim Baldwin, a teacher and chairman of the campaign group Graveney Rural Environmental Action Team, (Great) said: "At the end of the day there is tremendous political will in Westminster for the windfarm project to go ahead. We are all for green energy, which is why we don't accept the need to damage our environment to make this project work."

Blot on the landscape or future of energy?

* Are they efficient?

The big problem with wind power is the energy generated depends on weather. Turbines start operating at wind speeds of 10mph, reaching maximum output at 33mph. At 55mph they must be shut down. Opponents say there is no guarantee the wind will blow within this range at peak need. It is impractical to store energy so non-wind back up power stations must be operated in tandem. But supporters say wind farms operate for up to 80 per cent of the time - similar to coal, gas or nuclear plants.

* Are they a blot on the landscape?

Vocal pressure groups, such as Country Guardian, say they can damage tourism and divide communities. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the National Trust have opposed applications in beautiful areas. Local authorities have also proved hard to convince. Opponents claim turbines are noisy although the British Wind Energy Association says they are inaudible at distances of 1km.

* Is wind energy too expensive?

The Government looks like it will fail to meet its targets for generating off-shore wind power. Work has yet to start on 10 of the 17 offshore schemes given the go-ahead compared to the 160 on-shore farms already built or under construction. The Energy White Paper looks set to raise the financial reward for offshore power which is 50 per cent more expensive. On-shore wind energy also remains more expensive than gas-fired power stations. Supporters say expanding wind power is the only way the Government will reach its target of supplying 20 per cent of Britain's energy by 2020 from renewable sources.

* Are wind farms bad for the environment?

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace welcome them because 99 per cent of energy is carbon-free. The RSPB dropped its objection to the Thames Estuary plans after it was assured that a wintering colony of birds would not be harmed. But it continues to oppose the massive on-shore scheme in Lewis where 181 turbines are planned because it threatens important species, including golden eagles. Supporters say it safeguards traditional farming.

Jonathan Brown