Skip to main content


Wind power in the UK

11 Sep 2019 Dave Elliott
Wind turbines
(Image courtesy: Shutterstock/Robert-Lucian-Crusitu)

After an initially slow start in the 1980s and 1990s, when it lagged far behind the pioneers – Denmark and then Germany – the UK has done quite well on wind energy. That’s not really surprising since it has about the best wind resource in the world, in Scotland especially. Now the UK has reached around 21.5 GW, including 8.5 GW offshore, and leads the world in offshore deployment.

More offshore wind is planned and with prices falling, to around £50/MWh in recent French auctions, the next round of the UK’s Contract for Difference (CfD) competitive auction subsidy scheme may see up to 6 GW added. Meanwhile, several already-agreed projects are in the pipeline, e.g. the 588 MW Beatrice deep water array should be on-line soon.

The UK is also host to two floating offshore wind projects. The still-being-developed 10 MW Dounreay Trì Floating Wind Demonstration Project, 10 km off Thurso, with two machines mounted on a Hexicon triangular platform, and the 30 MW Hywind scheme, billed as the world’s first commercial wind farm. Five machines have now been installed on spar buoys 29 km off Peterhead, Scotland. It has been doing well.

Floating devices can be installed far out to sea at sites with water depths that would make sea-bed fixed systems impossible or prohibitively expensive. It looks like the way to go longer term, with a Floating Wind Action Group set up through trade body RenewableUK, in partnership with Scottish Renewables, to press the case for large-scale use of the technology.

Scaling up

Meanwhile, device size for offshore machines is increasing dramatically. The world’s biggest wind turbine so far, GE Renewable Energy’s 12 MW Haliade-X, is to undergo UK testing before it enters production in 2021. It’s claimed that it will achieve an annual operating capacity factor of 63%, well above the 30-45% reached by most existing offshore machines, although the 402 MW Dudgeon wind farm, 32 km off  Norfolk, claimed 65% last year.

The UK government has confirmed a sector deal with the offshore wind industry to help it reach 30 GW of installed capacity in UK waters by 2030, with a new £100 m boost over 10 years recently announced. The government aims to support investment in the supply chain and energy infrastructure, and work with further education institutes on skill development and retraining, enabling workers to move between offshore energy sectors. It wants to increase the number of skilled jobs in the UK offshore wind sector from 7,200 to 27,000 by 2030. The government has also challenged the sector to ensure women hold at least 33% of these jobs by this date, with an ambition of reaching 40%, up from 16% today. The sector deal also aims to help the UK offshore wind industry boost global exports five-fold to £2.6 bn a year by 2030.

It does all look very positive. Certainly much more than 30 GW capacity is seen as possible, with Greenpeace looking to 45 GW by 2030 and an industry representative talking about 50 GW by 2050. Indeed some say offshore wind could even dominate UK energy supply.  And with sites now extending 100 miles or more offshore, for example for the Dogger Bank project, visual intrusion from land is not going to be an issue.

Onshore wind lags

The UK onshore wind story, however, is less good. New projects are still going ahead, with 598 MW added in 2018, but that was down from 2,666 MW installed in 2017. Support has been blocked following the Conservative government’s view that, as then energy minister Claire Perry re-confirmed recently, “we do not believe that more large-scale onshore wind is right for England”, with no access being allowed to the CfD, and tighter planning rules imposed.

Although there can still be local opposition to some projects, and opposition from the likes of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (see my earlier post), around 79% of the public supported onshore wind in the latest UK government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) national poll. Environmental lobby groups have been pushing for a rethink.

So has trade lobby RenewableUK. It has claimed that 4.5 GW of new onshore wind capacity was “shovel ready”, with local planning permission already obtained, and that it ought to be allowed CfD access. Onshore wind may not need subsidies as it’s now one of the lowest cost renewable options, but the CfD system offered the main route to market. RenewableUK also warned that new policies were needed to support repowering/replacing/updating existing onshore wind projects. Otherwise 8.27 GW, nearly 20% of renewables capacity, could be retired over the next 20 years. RenewableUK’s “optimum scenario”, with more powerful turbines, has 12 GW of replacement onshore wind. At the very least, the organization wanted commitments to maintain the current onshore capacity, pointing out that it is the cheapest option and that “the public mood is for more urgent action to tackle climate change and this is a concrete example of where government can act to avoid backsliding on progress against our carbon reduction targets”.

Beyond that, the case for expanding onshore wind does look very strong, given its low cost. A study by Vivid Economics for RenewableUK says expanding onshore wind from 13 GW today to 35 GW by 2035 would reduce the cost of electricity by 7% compared with other expansion options: a boom in onshore wind could, it claimed, cut energy bills by £50 a year compared to a high-gas energy mix.

The pressure for a rethink has built up from Conservatives too. And from business. In a letter to the business secretary Greg Clark, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said, “we must see action to unblock the substantial pipeline of onshore wind projects ready to be developed and built in parts of the country where they receive public support, such as Scotland”. It added that “hindering the continued deployment of the cheapest form of renewable electricity is hampering the goal of decarbonising at the lowest cost”. But it also thought nuclear might be viable “at the right price”.

The UK government Select Committee on Science and Technology thought the same and, while backing limited nuclear renewal, was adamant that “the Government must ensure that there is strong policy support for new onshore wind power”. It also backed re-powering older existing onshore wind projects with the most efficient technology, if there was local support.

Doing well in Scotland

While we await a government response to that, the situation for onshore wind is still a little grim, with expansion slowed. Though none of this means that some wind projects are not doing well, especially in Scotland. For example, Scottish Power’s Whitelee onshore wind farm near Glasgow, the UK’s largest, with 215 turbines, has been operating very successfully, with upgrades planned. It’s now set to have a “super battery” installed with 50 MWh of capacity. The kit will be able to reach a full charge in under an hour. It will allow excess power to be stored at times when demand is low or wind turbine output is high, for instance at night. This stored excess can then be released at times of higher demand and low wind. It will also be used to provide “bursts” of power to help stabilize the UK grid on a second-by-second basis.

That is good news, and there has been a concession on small projects on remote islands in Scotland. But overall, with exceptions, UK onshore wind development is mostly stalled — a far cry from what’s happening elsewhere in Europe. For example, in Germany although onshore capacity growth has slowed a little recently, the country now has over 53 GW. And, looking to the future, the EU-wide onshore 2050 potential has been put in a new German study at a massive 13.4 TW. That’s sufficient, if it could all be developed, to supply ten times EU power needs, at under €60/MWh and some at below €40/MWh. Another new study put the EU theoretical site potential for 2050 even higher, at a gigantic 52 TW. That is very speculative, and assumes the UK plays a role. Given the price falls, arguably the nation really should join the global boom – there’s around 95 GW of onshore wind capacity now in place in the US, and over 180 GW in China, with more planned. The UK does seem to be missing out on this with, for the government, Lord Henley offering the explanation that “the opportunities for the price of offshore wind coming down are surely far greater than for onshore wind, because of the scale of the windmills that one can build at sea, compared to on land. We have no plans to review that policy”.

Copyright © 2024 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors