Energy: Power firms feel wind of change: Britain is finally taking advantage of an inexhaustible natural resource. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
AS ONE of the windiest countries in Europe, Britain should be well placed to harness a renewable source in the quest to meet its energy needs cheaply.

But although a number of wind farms have been established around the country, progress is slow. Part of the problem is that 98 per cent of the pounds l15bn raised each year to meet the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO), goes to subsidise nuclear power. Only the remaining 2 per cent funds renewable projects, such as wind.

A long-awaited new tranche of NFFO contracts, expected to be announced late last year, has been delayed by the Department of Trade and Industry, which for its part is blaming the hold-up on the inquiry into the pit closure programme.

The difficulties are frustrating the fledgling industry, which has succeeded in attracting institutional backing.

For instance, the wind farm at Blyth Harbour on the Northumberland coast has funding from Hambros Bank and a European Community grant, as well as support from Blyth Harbour Commission. The farm, with nine 30m-high turbines dotted along a jetty that juts out into the water, is the first to be built in a British port. It will provide enough electricity for 1,500 homes.

Built at a cost of pounds 3.2m, the project, which came into operation shortly before Christmas, is one of a growing number.

This flurry of activity is a result of the 1990 round of electricity generating contracts issued under the NFFO, which requires electricity companies to buy a certain amount of energy that has been generated from non-fossil sources such as wind, water and waste products.

There are 10 wind farms operating in Britain with a further 60 under construction or awaiting planning permission.

Experts say that wind could eventually provide 20 per cent of the country's energy needs, with the South-west, North-west, Wales and Scotland best placed to take advantage of the south-westerly winds.

But other European countries are much further ahead. Denmark, for example, currently produces 2 per cent of its electricity needs via wind energy and plans to increase the figure to 10 per cent by 2000.

Although progress is slow, the infant industry in Britain has already attracted some big names. National Wind Power, a joint venture between National Power and Taylor Woodrow, is thought to be the largest. That is followed by Ecogen, a US-Japanese joint venture, and Renewable Energy Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of the construction group Sir Robert McAlpine.

Renewable Energy Systems is completing two big wind farms, one in Cornwall and the other near Burnley, which will provide enough electricity for 12,500 homes between them. Ian Mays, the director of Renewable Energy Systems, said: 'The technology is now reliable and wind energy is at least as cheap as nuclear.'

Environmentally aware companies are also starting to take a closer look at wind. Last May, Body Shop announced that it was to invest in a wind farm in Wales to be operated by National Wind Power. The plan is for the company to produce an amount of energy equivalent to that which it draws from the national grid.

Ironically, the project is still awaiting planning permission as objections have been raised on environmental grounds - visual intrusion and the potential threat to birds posed by turbine's rotary blades.

But for all this, the wind seems to be blowing in the right direction. As Dr Mays pointed out: 'There is a certain momentum building up, and investors have started to understand the technology. But to enable investment to grow, renewable energy needs a structured programme of support from the Government.'

(Photograph omitted)