Britain Blows Past 4GW Wind Mark, Still Has Long Way to Go

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The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) has unveiled new data on the nation’s wind power industry, and it’s a mix of good and bad news.

Europe’s third largest electricity market passed the 4 gigawatt (GW) milestone for installed wind power capacity. The latest GW was added in less than a year, a big improvement over the 14 years it took to install the first GW.

"Deployment of wind is rapidly accelerating," the BWEA said.

Still, the windiest nation in Europe has a long, long way to go to catch up with competitors on the continent. Germany, which has one of the worst wind resources in Europe, has an installed capacity of 25 GW. No. 2 Spain is at roughly 17 GW.

For now, the BWEA says 12 GW are either operational or in the British pipeline. That puts wind squarely on track to beat out nuclear power in installed capacity by 2012. Another 9 GW worth of turbines is awaiting approval. If they get the go ahead, the UK will be two-thirds of the way to its 30 GW wind energy target by 2020.

That’s a big if.

The approval rate for onshore wind farms has slumped to an all-time low, the BWEA reports. Just 25 percent of projects got the okay so far this year, down from 63 percent in 2007. That’s compared to an approval rating of over 70 percent for other major projects, such as roads, housing and supermarkets.

The main reason: NIMBY (Not-in-My-Backyard) pressure groups are increasingly swaying Britain’s local councils.

"It is absolutely scandalous that three quarters of all planning applications for onshore wind turbines are turned down. We cannot let the vocal minority stop our move to a low carbon economy and stop us meeting our global emissions targets," said BWEA Chief Executive Maria McCaffery.

NIMBYism in Britain is well documented. It’s what sparked a decision by wind parts manufacturer Vestas to shut down its turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in July. The local UK market was seen as too small and too paralyzed by local opposition to justify keeping the plant open. As Vestas put it:

"The local planning process for the construction of new onshore wind power plants in the UK remains an obstacle to the development of a more favorable market for onshore wind power."

A survey earlier this year by Saint Consulting affirmed the trend that overall NIMBY opposition is hardening in Britain.

According to the numbers, wind energy is actually faring better than many new projects, such as casinos and landfills, with 21 percent of individuals saying they support local turbines. That’s enough to make wind the second-most popular development scheme in the UK, behind schools. But it’s not enough to facilitate a boom.

The bottom line: The British public remains far less accommodating than the residents of, say, the U.S. and Canada on wind power. And the uncertainty is scaring off potential developers and choking projects of funds in a potentially large market.

The dismal state of wind approvals wasn’t the only news overshadowing Britain’s latest wind milestone.

A new study called "UK Energy and the Environment" released this week found the country will miss its goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2010 and 34 percent by 2020.

According to analyst firm Cambridge Econometrics, Britain will cut carbon emissions by around 7 percent between 2008 and 2010, thanks to a drop in industrial activity from the economic downturn. But in the next decade, emissions are set to decline by just 0.75 percent a year — not enough to reach a 34 percent reduction by a long shot.

The study also said the government will miss the EU target to source 15 percent of the country’s energy from renewables, as well as its own domestic targets for clean electricity of 10 percent by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020.

Some of the country’s struggles are symptomatic of a broader reversal of fortune for clean energy development. With the effects of the recession, investment in wind energy generation has tumbled worldwide.

But they’re also the result of Britain’s late start to big wind projects, and its current lack of political will to urgently address climate change. Paul Ekins, co-editor of the Cambridge Econometrics report and professor of energy and environment policy at University College London, said:

"The government is to be applauded for setting statutory carbon targets and budgets, but seems still to need appreciate the difference between setting targets and achieving them."


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