There been a lot of hot air spoken in the past few days about the opening of the world’s largest offshore windfarm, seven miles off the coast of Kent. Apparently, if you believe all that you read, the 100 turbines that make up the Thanet scheme will generate enough electricity to supply 200,000 British households - even when the wind’s not blowing. And apparently the construction of the site represents the emergence of an exciting new manufacturing sector – even though 80% of the £900 million investment in the project has gone to overseas firms. It seems that all those new whirring blades have addled more than a few brains.
Behind the excited headlines lies a more sombre truth. For an exposed island located in a blowy part of the world, the development of the UK’s fledgling wind power sector has been slow and laborious. Onshore developments have been dogged by planning issues, with many objections lodged by the Ministry of Defence over issues of radar interference. Offshore projects, meanwhile, have proved notoriously difficult to fund. Indeed, planning for the London Array windfarm in the Thames estuary which, with 341 turbines, will dwarf the Thanet development, began as far back as 2001 but major partners such as Shell have thrown the project into turmoil by pulling out along the way. The first steel will not be erected until next year at the earliest. And as the news story on the opposite page suggests, installation costs in the offshore wind sector are still an issue.
When you look at the wider scheme of things, Thanet isn’t such a big deal. The breathless enthusiasm that greeted its opening said more about the historical inaction of the sector than it did about the project itself. Thanet might be an impressive feat of engineering and logistics, and erecting such massive structures in a hostile environment is undoubtedly hard, but the fact that it has no equals in terms of size speaks volumes for the problems the industry has faced.
Even with all those caveats, Thanet should still be regarded as a good news story.
It shows that despite its many obstacles, the wind power sector is moving forward and growing in size, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Slowly, project by project, the UK’s installed wind capacity is edging up and is estimated to stand at 5GW, even though that figure is only meaningful if ideal wind conditions were experienced across the entire country. The London Array development will add another 1GW when it is finally built. The numbers are starting to add up to achieve some kind of critical mass.
This increment is surely to be welcomed. No-one is under the illusion that windfarms will provide for anywhere near the bulk of the UK’s energy needs. A requirement for a predictable baseload will always see to that. But it would be foolish to deny that wind power has an important role to play as part of a wider mix of nuclear, oil and gas, coal and renewable energy. Thanet, therefore, might not be a panacea in terms of our energy needs, but it is a step in the right direction.