Revolutionary plans for a massive expansion of offshore wind farms have been unveiled in a £100bn project designed to usher in a new era of green energy for Britain.
A quarter of the country's electricity needs would be met through wind power by 2020 under the strategy, with the construction of 6,400 turbines within nine sites dotted around the coast. The programme amounts to the biggest energy supply shake-up since the discovery of the North Sea oil and gas fields more than 40 years ago.
The Government is pinning its hopes on offshore wind, alongside a renaissance in nuclear power and the development of clean coal technology, as an essential element in its bid to achieve an 80 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. Building the new fields would slash carbon emissions by up to 40 million tonnes a year.
However, just moments after Gordon Brown had announced that the project could deliver 32 gigawatts (GW) of power – enough to supply 19 million homes – and up to 70,000 jobs, senior industry figures involved in the plans warned that the vision could not be delivered without crucial additions to Britain's electricity network, costing up to £15bn, that have not yet been approved.
Eddie O'Connor, chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power, which has won the right to develop a 4GW wind farm in the North Sea, said the current grid was "completely inadequate" to cater for the huge wind-power programme.
"I don't want to rain on anyone's party because Britain has made a gigantic leap here," he said. "But when you announce a project like this, offshore, you're into a new area." Mr O'Connor maintained that the first section of a new "Super Grid" for renewable energy needed to be completed by 2017 if the plan was to be realised.
He also warned the skills shortages loomed and that Britain would need a "gigantic" new harbour to cope with the scale of the offshore projects, an additional facility that will cost billions. "Any of the harbours there now are just not big enough to handle what the Prime Minster talked about today," he said. A lack of capacity in cable manufacturing is also anticipated.
Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, conceded that there were significant supply-chain challenges, but said that Britain had to be an "early mover" in the industry in order to benefit from the growth of green technology. "Our island has one of the best wind energy resources in Europe and today's news shows we're creating the right conditions for the energy industry to invest in harnessing it," he said.
Energy firms E.ON, RWE Npower, Scottish Power and Centrica were among those awarded the rights to develop the wind farms yesterday. The nine sites are located in the Irish Sea, the Bristol Channel, the Moray Firth, the Firth of Forth, off the coast of Norfolk and West of the Isle of Wight.
While experts have suggested that the wind farms could generate 3GW, the firms involved have pledged to produce 25GW of electricity. Construction is expected to begin by 2013, with the first to come on stream by 2015 at the earliest.
The bulk of the financing for the installations will come from the private sector, though industry sources said they had been attracted to Britain by "generous" subsidies offered by the Government. The public subsidies are funded through levies on domestic and business energy bills.
Green groups and MPs raised concerns over how much the British economy would benefit from the project. Industry sources said that they would not be forced to employ British contractors but added that they would come under pressure to use local firms for "strategic public affairs purposes".
Fewer than 10 per cent of the contracts to build the London Array, currently the largest offshore wind farm in the world under construction off the south-east coast, went to British firms. "Britain must be a world leader in offshore wind, but unless action is taken immediately we will lose out," said Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat energy spokesman.
The Prime Minister promised that the scheme would create 20,000 to 30,000 jobs in installation and operation by 2020, 15,000 in manufacturing and 25,000 in additional services for the sector. He added that more jobs would then be created through research and development.
"We are taking a very large step forward today in a massive new investment, with this partnership, to develop the seas of our country," Mr Brown said. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, said the plans established "nothing less than the largest market in the world for offshore wind, with huge opportunities for the UK economy".
Mr Brown was privately lobbed by industry figures yesterday to back the development of a "Silicon Valley" for wind power on the east coast of England, which could become a centre for research, training, manufacturing and a new harbour facility.
The turbines set to be used in the new fields are far bigger than those seen on land. Some will sit in 80m of water, meaning that new technology will have to be used to construct and secure them.