Oil firms invest in offshore wind power

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OFFSHORE oil companies believe the answer to future energy shortages may be blowing in the wind. As experts predict a long-term decline in North Sea oil and gas production, energy firms are investigating whether they can harness wind power instead.

Shell is carrying out a feasibility study into exploiting off- shore wind power, and the US oil giant Enron has also expressed a firm interest. Meanwhile the first of the North Sea's windmills are expected to be erected off Northumberland next year.

Ministers are also poised to give the new energy resource - which, in theory, could provide more than enough power for the entire country - a fair wind. Energy Minister John Battle has predicted that offshore wind technologies will be "brought forward" and is expected to feature in a "new and strong drive" to produce a tenth of Britain's electricity from renewable sources within 12 years - which the Government has promised to outline this summer.

Wind power is the world's fastest-growing energy source - it has more than doubled over the past few years - but only two small offshore wind farms have been built, both in the relatively calm Baltic Sea. But the latest issue of the authoritative monthly ENDS Report says firms are now "offering a persuasive blueprint for a major new offshore industry to be developed over the next decade".

A British firm, Border Wind, backed by EU money, is planning to put up two windmills half a mile off Blyth Harbour, north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, next year, in "a first run at operating in serious North Sea conditions".

Offshore wind has two big advantages: it blows faster and more steadily than on land, and there are no neighbours to object to the sight and sound of the turbine. More than three-quarters of all applications to build wind farms in Britain are turned down.

In the past, windmills at sea would have produced electricity too expensively, but huge new turbines with blades spinning round a circle more than 200ft in diameter - too big to get planning permission on land - have cut costs dramatically.

Shell's wind power chief, Frank Von Oursau, said last week that the idea of putting windmills offshore had "potential" and "kept them out of sight". But he denied suggestions from environmental campaigners that they might simply be used to power the company's oil and gas rigs.