Breezy Britain reaps the whirlwind

First offshore wind farm set to power a town and generate environmental ists' hopes for renewable energy

PowerGen is planning to build Britain's first offshore wind farm two miles off the Norfolk coast. If the complex of 25 giant turbines goes ahead it could give wind energy development its biggest boost ever in the UK.

There are more than 30 land wind farms, thanks to both a subsidy scheme funded by electricity consumers through their bills, and to the fact that Britain is Europe's windiest large nation. The industry has always looked to moving offshore, where the winds blow stronger and steadier and the environmental conflicts found inland can be minimised.

But in Great Yarmouth, from where the turbines would be visible, there was some concern at the proposal, particularly about the affect on the large numbers of seals which sometimes bask at low tide on a sandbank less than an quarter of a mile from the proposed site.

The 25 turbines would stand over 150ft tall from the tips of their topmost blade. They would be built on platforms in 13ft-deep shallows, and generate enough power for a town of 56,000 people. PowerGen, Britain's second biggest generator, has submitted its project to the Department of Trade and Industry along with dozens of plans from other developers backing onshore wind farms. All of them are seeking the consumer subsidy used to fund renewable energy systems in Britain. PowerGen is also negotiating with the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed.

PowerGen plans to use new 1.5 megawatt turbines, two or three times the power of those being installed in onland farms. They would be made by the Danish firm Vesta, although there are hopes that many British- made components will be used.

"This proposal is very good news," said Dr Ian Mays, President of the European Wind Energy Association and managing director of UK wind farm developer Renewable Energy Systems. "We have a huge wind resource offshore, and I'm sure the UK industry will be taking increasing advantage of the growing market here and overseas."

There are just three offshore wind farms in the world, all in Europe. Britain's first wind farm opened less than five years ago - 10 electricity- generating windmills on a Cornish hilltop.

Wind farms in Britain generate sufficient electricity for a city the size of Bristol, but they have always been at the centre of debate. Conservationists have deplored the siting of several of them in beautiful upland areas. Some are next to national parks.

Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, has railed against them and is honorary president of an anti-wind farm group.

The environmentalist, Jonathan Porritt, says he finds their slim shapes and slowly turning blades a beautiful and exciting pointer to a greener future.

Wind farms are close to being able to compete with conventional fossil fuel sources of energy. The price of wind-generated electricity has dropped steadily as the turbines have become mass-produced and reliable. The windiness of the site is all-important because the amount of power available is proportional to the wind-speed cubed.

But turbines usually have to be kept 300 metres from the nearest home because of noise. They cannot be close to trees because these interfere with windflow. The hilltop wind farm at Penrhyddland near Llandinam, Powys, which has 103 turbines, has plagued neighbours living some distance away with its noise.

Wind generation could supply 10 per cent of UK electricity by 2025 with little increase in power bills, but there would be have to be many hundreds of wind farms, and they would dominate much of our breezy western and upland countryside. That is why the move offshore is so significant.

The great majority of turbines installed in Britain are imported. About pounds 60m of Government money has been sunk into wind research and development but this has not yet given Britain a strong windpower industry.

One reason is that much of this taxpayers' money was spent developing vast multi-megawatt turbines much larger than those in demand today.

The Danish strategy proved much more successful; the government there subsidised demand heavily during the 1980s, leaving it to the manufacturers to decide what were the most cost effective machines. Now its industry has a world lead.

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