Wind statistics raise concerns about U.K. renewable policy

By Lisa Gibson | February 07, 2011

The North Sea has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind, and the U.K. government has made a strong push for its use. But following the least windy year, by some accounts since 1894, one can’t help but wonder how renewable energy goals might shift.

According to statistics from the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, the average wind speed in 2010 was 1.2 knots (nautical miles per hour) lower than in 2009 and 1.4 knots lower than the nine-year average of 9.2. The December 2010 average wind speed was 1.4 knots lower than the same month in 2009 and 3.3 knots lower than the nine-year mean for December.

“There’s no reason to suggest that the overall wind profile has or will reduce,” said a DECC spokesman. “The data shows that wind speeds have stayed within a reasonably similar range over the past 10 years.” The DECC administers government incentives for clean energy, including the Renewables Obligation, which awards Renewables Obligation Certificates to qualifying renewable energy applications, based on technology type. Biomass technologies receive between 1.5 and 2 ROCs per megawatt hour. Onshore wind gets one ROC per megawatt hour and offshore wind receives 1.5. “We are currently reviewing support given to renewables in terms of ROCs but it is too early to predict the outcome of the modelling on this,” the spokesman said, adding that there is no reason to suggest the overall wind profile will reduce consistently over a longer term period.

But the decrease in wind speeds has been reported widely in the U.K. and some scientists predict they will continue, prompting some biomass developers to question the wind farm strategy and whether biomass could step up and take the renewable energy reins. “I think this reported trend for lower wind levels is very worrying for the U.K. bearing in mind its planned over-reliance on wind as a massive component of its future electricity source,” said Chris Moore, director of U.K. biomass power developer MGT Power. The government is currently consulting on its proposals for the Electricity Market Review, he adds, a new program that includes subsidies such as capacity payments. “These capacity payments will be huge if the generated wind power is as low as these scientists are forecasting,” he said.

The Renewable Energy Association, however, hesitates to predict what it could mean, saying wind is not a constant resource like biomass is, and a decrease in wind speeds may not be a driver for biomass development. “Wind is variable year on year, and always will be,” said Gaynor Hartnell, REA CEO. “One poorer year does not undermine the case for a significant contribution from wind going forward. It will be a major contributor to the U.K. renewable 2020 target, but one technology alone cannot meet our low carbon energy needs. Wind does seem to get relatively better treatment than biomass. Government should embrace what biomass can deliver ... The U.K. needs diversity and a portfolio of renewable technologies, which can complement each other, while reducing emissions and providing energy security.”

Others in the U.K.’s biomass sector claim they haven’t heard credible scientific reports suggesting average wind speeds are decreasing, but some developers have hope it will have a positive effect on biomass incentives.

“With biomass electricity already 25 percent cheaper than offshore wind, and with biomass power generation being free of uncertainty going forward, it seems sensible for the U.K. regulators to ensure that biomass takes a large share of the new support mechanisms,” Moore said.