In April the UK government published its draft Marine Bill. Though cautiously welcomed by organizations representing the tidal, wave and wind energy communities, there remain fears that new laws to safeguard the marine environment could frustrate efforts to boost offshore renewable energy capacity. Chris Webb reports.

Chris Webb

It is an ambitious target. A further 25 GW – in addition to eight GW currently in the pipeline – of wind power and an additional 5000-7000 offshore turbines stretching the length of Britain’s shores. It would mean a wind power generator would be visible from virtually any point on the UK’s 12 000 km coastline. But it is part of Britain’s vision for a future rich in non-fossil fuel energy provision including wind, wave and tidal power that would comfortably exceed the European Union (EU) target for a 20 per cent contribution from renewables by 2020.

The government’s fondness for renewable energy, and wind power in particular, reached fever pitch with the publication in 2003 of a White Paper on the UK’s energy future. It saw renewables taking centre stage in the country’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change while sidelining other established technologies such as nuclear power. Despite significant back tracking since then, particularly on the issue of nuclear power, renewables remain a major element in the energy mix that the government insists will ensure secure and sustainable energy supplies for future decades.

The United Kingdom’s draft Marine Bill is aimed at simplifying the planning procedures for offshore wind farms
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It was with a guarded response, then, that organizations representing companies wishing to build offshore wind, wave and tidal power installations received the publication in April of a draft Marine Bill reputedly aimed at simplifying planning procedures, while providing more robust protection to the environment.

Considered long overdue by environmentalists and hailed by government ministers as a world-leading initiative to manage offshore development while safeguarding precious ecosystems, the document, albeit in a revised form, could be before the UK House of Commons as early as this autumn.Signalling a sea change

The Marine Bill signals a sea change, quite literally, in the way the marine environment of coastal waters around Britain’s coasts will be both nurtured and exploited. It pulls together the administration of all marine-related activities, whether industrial, commercial, recreational or conservation-based, and has the backing of the big three political parties, as well as environmental groups. It was first put forward in Labour’s 2005 manifesto after energetic lobbying from conservation groups.

The draft Bill follows publication of the government’s first consultation document on its proposals for the scope and content of the Bill in March 2006. March the following year saw publication of a white paper, aptly named A Sea Change, in which it was proposed to establish eight offshore ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ and as many as 80 highly protected sea areas. A Sea Change heralded plans to create the UK’s first ever marine planning system, providing a framework for spatially distributing oil and gas exploration, marine renewables, carbon storage, inshore fisheries and shipping. The licensing of marine activities such as dredging would also be overhauled, as will the organization of fisheries, it stated. Nearly 40 separate acts regulate oil drilling, fishing and extraction of materials from the seabed, while fishing legislation has seen little change since it was introduced in the 1890s.

Moreover, in a move directly relevant to the wave and offshore wind power industries, the white paper promised to deliver a ‘streamlined, transparent and consistent’ system for licensing marine developments that the industries have been campaigning for. Launching it at London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the then environment secretary David Miliband, said: “Protecting our seas is one of the biggest environmental challenges after climate change and the two are closely linked.”

Broadly welcomed

The draft Maine Bill has been largely welcomed by environmental organizations such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) says it supports the Bill’s aim to create a new planning framework for the offshore environment, but insists it should have the principles of sustainable commercial development at its heart.

On behalf of the wind industry (the BWEA also represents wave and tidal interests) the organization is calling on the government to ensure that the draft bill balances conservation concerns with sustainable economic needs, such as renewable energy. Previously, after the publication of the White Paper in 2007, BWEA had voiced its concerns, saying: “It was vital that the legislation does not add a new layer of bureaucracy to what is already a complex system for developers and conservation groups alike, or create greater uncertainty for an industry in its infancy. This would only lead to the UK losing out in its present position at the forefront of the growing offshore renewable energy sector and potentially to it substantially missing its targets for renewable energy generation in the future.”

The Pelamis wave machine located off the coast of the Scottish island of Orkney
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Maria McCaffery, BWEA chief executive, said: “We welcome the Bill, which will provide much needed stability and clarity for the marine environment. However, the sea isn’t just an environmental asset, it has to be a sustainable, economic one as well.”

The bill will create Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) for offshore habitats and wildlife, with a new government agency, the Marine Management Organization (MMO) setting planning policy. McCaffery said the BWEA supports the creation of MCZs, but believes their location and management should be decided by the MMO with input from all stakeholders, including nature conservation agencies and other sea users, such as renewable energy developers.

BWEA said it would be seeking a clear commitment to sustainable development in the MMO’s remit, in order to ensure that offshore planning policy will allow for the siting of the 5000-7000 wind turbines needed to meet the UK’s renewable energy targets and tackle climate change, supposedly a government priority.

McCaffery added: “Britain’s potential to develop offshore wind resources and reach the government’s renewable energy targets must be placed at the heart of the draft Marine Bill. [It] should promote sustainable development and that includes economic activity, such as offshore renewables.”

Reducing bureaucracy

BWEA has been lobbying the government to simplify and streamline planning procedures for wind farms, both on and offshore. Many projects remain mired in bureaucracy and can spend months or years in the planning process with no guarantee of success. The wind power industry hopes that the draft Bill will clarify the process and set accessible and immovable goalposts.

At present, developers wishing to set up an offshore wind farm require one licence under the Electricity Act, another under the Food and Environment Protection Act and yet a further one under the Coast Protection Act to determine if the wind farm is likely to interfere with marine navigation

Under the Marine Bill, the system will be simplified and just one licence will be needed, under the Electricity Act, for wind farms of up to 100 MW. The bill also sets statutory time limits on the application process in a bid to help minimize delays. Larger wind farms fall into the category of ‘nationally significant projects’ and will be licensed under the Planning Reform Bill.

Responding last year to an announcement by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform John Hutton of the government’s wish to add a further 25 GW of offshore wind power capacity by 2020, Sue Ion, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and a former director of technology at British Nuclear Fuels warned of the dangers of being too ambitious. She said: “We applaud any initiative to boost the contribution of renewable energy sources within a balanced energy portfolio. However, wind power cannot provide all our electricity – the engineering effort to build 7000 large offshore turbines by 2020 would be enormous, unprecedented and is probably underestimated.” The RAE has made no secrete of its concerns about the UK’s ability “to meet these aspirational targets,” and is starting a new study on the engineering challenges of offshore wind projects, to report next year.

But Hutton’s plan has widespread backing elsewhere. Although his speech, delivered to a conference in Berlin last year does not go into great detail about how his wishes will be achieved – it would be the energy companies, not the government, who would have to put the money into what would inevitably be an expensive project – the proposed initiative has many supporter. This is in spite of the fact that offshore wind, by its very nature, is much more costly than onshore.

“There’s certainly scope for huge increase in offshore wind power, but instead of dribbling out announcements, what the government needs to come out with is the complete plan, what our energy mix is going to look like in the future,” says Philip Wolfe, executive director of the Renewable Energy Association. “For example, what are we going to use when the wind stops blowing? And there’s no kind of strategy to extend the transmission network.”

UK’s offshore wind potential

Unquestionably more technically demanding and more costly than onshore wind farms, offshore installations have huge potential. A large part of Europe’s offshore wind blows over British waters, and the wind is stronger and more consistent here around the UK’s shores. Britain has five offshore wind farms and three more are under construction.

Offshore wind installations have huge potential but are more demanding and more costly than onshore wind farms
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Hutton says the challenge for the government and for industry is to turn this potential – to reduce Britain’s high dependency on fossil fuels and to benefit the economy – into a cost-effective reality. “This will be a major challenge,” he told the European energy conference. “The UK has some of the best offshore wind resource in the world, a long history of design, installation and operational expertise in the offshore environment, and the skills and manufacturing capability to transfer to this exciting new sector. Next year [Britain] will overtake Denmark as the country with the most offshore wind capacity.”

Some time after his comments in Berlin, Hutton appeared on the BBC’s Politics Show, where he was pressed on whether having a wind installation every half-mile around the coast was acceptable. He told the interviewer: “It is going to change our coastline… there is no way of making the shift to low-carbon technology without making a change and that change being visible to people.” He added: “We’ve got a choice as a country whether we rise to the challenge… or stick our head in the sand and hope it [climate change] goes away. It is not going to go away.” Hutton said a mix of energy sources – including nuclear power – would cover for calmer weather periods when wind farms were operating less efficiently.

Major investment required

A little more than two per cent of Britain’s electricity is generated from renewable sources, or about two GW, including wind power. The first tranche of offshore wind farms began in 2001. Some 8 GW of capacity could be up and running by 2014, including the 1 GW London Array, the biggest offshore wind farm in the world. Hutton says the next stage in the expansion of offshore wind power would open up the vast bulk of the UK’s continental shelf to large-scale development.

Opposition spokesmen have given a mixed response to expansion of offshore wind power. The Conservative shadow business secretary Alan Duncan said the UK should use its offshore capacity for generating electricity “that’s clean and secure”. He added: “So yes, I think it’s inevitable and a good thing that there will be more offshore wind.” Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat’s environment spokesman, said: “This is a welcomed change in tone from the government, but ministers need to pay households to install micro-generators and also invest in big schemes like the Severn Barrage which alone could generate five per cent of our electricity needs.”

Yet another supporter of more offshore wind power investment is The Crown Estate, which has signed an agreement with Clipper Windpower to purchase the prototype of the world’s largest offshore wind turbine, Clipper’s 7.5 MW MBE turbine, also known as the Britannia project.

The Crown Estate’s director of marine estates, Rob Hastings, said: “It is widely recognized that offshore wind energy will provide the majority of the required contribution needed to ensure that the UK meets its demanding renewable energy target to supply 15 per cent of our consumed energy from renewable sources by 2020.” Hastings added: “This major investment will allow us to gain firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing the development of wind turbines specialized for deep water marine deployment as the process of engaging industry to develop the next phase of offshore wind farms begins. If the industry is to reach the current delivery target of a total capacity of up to 33 GW by 2020, this kind of support and research will be invaluable.”

The 1.2 MW SeaGen tidal system being installed into the fast-flowing waters of Strangford Narrows, Northern Ireland
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Crucial to the successful delivery of such an ambitious target will be the way in which the MMO takes forward the new system of marine planning. “That will enable us to consider all of our needs and uses in the marine environment, and involve the public in deciding how they should be managed,” explains Diana Linskey, deputy director for the marine environment at Defra. “The MMO will also act as a ‘one-stop shop,’ making it faster to process licences for projects from small jetties to large wind farms, while reducing the number of licences required.”

Alongside the MMO, the 12 Sea Fisheries Committees (SFCs) that regulate inshore fishing activities will be modernized and given greater powers for enforcement, as well as more clearly defined duties. Parts of the sea-bed will also be protected, not only for conservation but to preserve key spawning grounds.

Environment secretary, Hilary Benn, on publishing the draft Marine Bill, said: “Our seas are already showing the effects of climate change and with increasing use of the sea by many competing interests we must make sure that the marine environment can cope with changing conditions. We have a duty to look after our seas for future generations.”

The next legislative step

Now the draft Bill will go for pre-legislative scrutiny by the UK Parliament in the summer. This involves thorough discussion by a Committee of the House, and also gives people and organizations with an interest in the bill the opportunity to give their views to the Committee.

After pre-legislative scrutiny the draft Bill will be amended as necessary and introduced to Parliament “when the timetable allows,” according to a Defra statement. The earliest opportunity will probably arise in the next session of Parliament in the autumn. The Defra statement continues: “It must also ensure that an efficient process for dealing with offshore renewable energy projects allows them to be developed in areas that combine adequate wind, wave or tidal resource with onshore grid capacity.”