2010 may well be regarded as one of mixed fortunes for Britain's renewable energy industries; a year opening with triumphs and ending with a few tribulations. Here's a brief resumé of some of the progress made to date in the task of reducing the UK's dependence on fossil fuels and an indication that there is still a long way to go.
The Carbon Transition Plan promoted by the Labour government in July 2009, aimed to have 30 per cent of the UK's energy needs being derived from renewables and a further 40 per cent from low CO2-content fuels by 2020.
The Scottish Government was even more ambitious in its proposed targets with the aim of achieving 30 per cent of electricity generated being derived from renewables by end 2011, which is rather unlikely and will require a lot to go right and come on stream in the next 14 months. It is the case however, that by 2007, a most credible 20 per cent of Scotland's electricity needs were being met by renewable sources. The avowed ambition of Scotland's political leaders to reach an 80 per cent target by 2020 may have more to do with the SNP's rejection of nuclear power as an energy source than a target actually achievable. Not impossible, but some more sober voices look to achieving 50 per cent by the end of the next decade.
Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, claimed in early January 2010: "We hold a competitive advantage in developing offshore renewables, including as much as a quarter of Europe's offshore wind energy potential and a world-class scientific capacity and skills base."
An assured Mr Salmond made this statement hot on the heels of important renewable energy contracts being confirmed. The Scottish Government finally gave its approval for the controversial upgrade of the Beauly to Denny transmission power lines. The power line's wrangle was very much one to do with aesthetics, or the lack of, in that the upgrade involves the construction of a line of pylons, possibly of a large American variety, up to 200 feet high. The line will stretch from the hydro-electric dams, 20 or so miles west of Inverness, down through the Highlands and the Cairngorms National Park and terminating at a large sub-station at Denny, near Falkirk.
I say finally because for the past few years, sometimes unsightly, daubed placards with the slogan "(Say) No (To The) Pylons" have decorated the verges of the major roads in the areas affected. Scottish and Southern Energy, the company behind the venture, lodged their plans in 2005 on proposals first mooted as long ago as 2002.
The proposed 137 mile, 600 pylon upgrade had drawn some 18,000 objections, a considerable number for such areas of small population. Many wanted the cables to be buried underground or laid sub-sea, both methods involving considerable extra cost in a project already totalling over £400 million. The line's capacity will rise from 132kV at present to 400kV.
The Scottish Energy Minister, Jim Mather, told the Scottish Parliament on approving the scheme: "Scotland's electricity network needs significant reinforcement to allow our vast renewables potential to be harnessed, transmitted and exported...Currently, we simply do not have the transmission capacity to carry the green energy which Scotland will generate over the coming years."
On Friday, 08 January 2010, BBC News reported that two large offshore wind power contracts had been awarded by the Crown Estate, a UK government agency. One wind farm to be developed in the Moray Firth and another in the Firth of Forth by companies Moray Offshore Renewables and SeaGreen Wind Energy. The aim is to build as many as a thousand new turbines capable of generating nearly five giga watts of power when completed. It is also hoped that these and other like contracts will help to generate new employment in manufacturing, research, engineering, installation, operation and services.
Moray Offshore Renewables Limited is a joint venture between Portugal's largest industrial company, EDP and SeaEnergy PLC - formerly Ramco Energy PLC. EDP Renewables is the world's fourth largest wind energy company. SeaEnergy, based in Aberdeen is in the process of gradually winding down its oil and gas operations so as to concentrate on the offshore wind business.
The Moray Firth Development Zone lies some 14 miles off the small port of Wick, Caithness and is situated on the Smith Bank in waters between one and two hundred feet deep. The expectation is that 260 turbines will be built on an area of sea encompassing nearly 200 square miles. The turbines will generate 1,300MW, able to supply a million homes with electricity once fully operational. The first power transmission is expected in 2016.
In May 2010, SeaEnergy was given a grant of £30,000 under the Scottish Enterprise Innovation Support Scheme to conduct a feasibility study into the service opportunities available in the offshore renewables industry. The company was praised by Scottish Enterprise's Adrian Gillespie, director of energy and low carbon technologies, as "an excellent example of an innovative company with real ambition and leadership...in the offshore renewable energy market..."
Steve Remp, SeaEnergy's Chairman said: "I believe there is a significant opportunity for us to establish a renewables service business to support both the existing 1GW of offshore wind farms that are now in operation off the UK coast and the over 40GW of capacity planned to be built in the coming years."
The feasible capacity is really enormous and all this good cheer might lead one to imagine that Britain could take a comparatively relaxed attitude concerning its future energy supplies. 'Fraid not as one fast forwards to the near present.
On 26 October 2010, Skykon, the Danish wind turbine manufacturer announced that it was filing for insolvency, blaming the financial crisis and recession for the downturn in its market.
Skykon's Chief Executive Jens Pedersen told businessGreen.com: "The wind turbine industry is project based and very cyclical, and it is currently being affected by a number of negative factors in the wake of the financial crisis...to the effect that we are in a very cash-strapped situation."
Little comfort for the 120 or so workers left at its Machrihanish turbine factory, near Campbeltown, Argyll and little comfort for the Scottish Government which had given Skykon a grant of £9.7 million in March 2009. Then, Skykon had promised to invest a further £35 million in the facility and bring the workforce up to at least 250. There was even talk of 300 to 450 jobs if all went well.
That the suddenness of this catastrophe has shocked more that the local community can be seen from the company's web page which even this weekend, still invites clients and potentials, to "Meet Skykon in Glasgow, 2-4 November 2010" at the annual RenewableUK 2010 Conference and Exhibition. The announcement adds: "Skykon will be located in Hall 5, booth number 127". Or maybe not!
The Campbeltown Courier on 26 October 2010 writes: "Latest reports suggest a number of local businesses with unpaid outstanding accounts, some quite substantial." Not funny in a small, remote and rural area.
There's problems afoot throughout the UK. Oliver Wright in The Independent on Thursday, 28 October 2010, reports that: "Hundreds of local revolts against wind farms have jeopordised the plan to use them to generate more than a quarter of Britain's electricity...planning approvals...in England are at an all-time low, with only one in three applications getting the go-ahead from councils in the face of angry and organised opposition from people living nearby."
Mr Wright notes that over the past year to September 2010, there has been a 50 per cent drop in planning approvals and quotes Gordon Edge, Director of Policy at RenewableUK, that for every completed wind farm, 18 have been considered and rejected so that by now, the industry had hoped to have 10,000 wind farms up and running but have only about of quarter of this total.
Apparently, campaigners against wind farms want them all to be moved offshore, finding them unsightly, noisy, bird killing etc, etc
Michael Savage who also writes in The Independent on 28 October, found that the people living near British Energy's Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station had recently voted down a 12-pylon wind farm and were happy enough to see the Station expand on the proposed wind farm site, the locals having lived without problems with the nuclear presence since 1960 and finding it less "visually obstructive".
With David Cameron's "Big Society" encouraging the individual to take more responsibility for local community issues, actions and needs and both Lib Dem and Conservative policy putting more, maybe forcing more, responsibility upon local authorities, the chances of building giant wind turbines throughout the country don't look too promising. Few people like them, councillors want to be elected, and re-elected.
Every cloud has a silver lining though. If and when black-outs do come, it should give a great boost to the candlemakers. "Now will that be plain or scented?"