Expansion plans at one of the world’s largest offshore windfarms have come to a sudden halt, with the owners blaming concerns about migrating birds for the interruption.
The London Array will not proceed to its planned second stage, meaning it will be about a third smaller than originally proposed. The windfarm’s power output will be about 630MW instead of the more than 1GW that had been the target for more than five years.
The news is the latest in a series of blows to the UK’s renewables industry, which include the decision by the German company RWE npower to drastically scale back its UK ambitions.
Mike O’Hare, general manager of the consortium behind the London Array, which is in the Thames estuary, said it would take until 2017 to know whether additional turbines at the farm would affect the habitat of red-throated divers. That made the construction of additional turbines unfeasible, the consortium decided.
He said: “In the absence of any certainty that phase two would be able to go ahead, our shareholders have decided to surrender the Crown Estate agreement for lease on the site, terminate the grid connection option and concentrate on other development projects in their individual portfolios.”
The windfarm, which was opened officially by David Cameron in July, has 175 turbines and occupies around 40 square miles in the Thames Estuary north of Ramsgate. It has enough capacity to power two thirds of the homes in Kent.
Despite the setback, officials at the Department of Energy and Climate Change insisted that the UK’s offshore wind strategy was on track and that the number of turbines would increase from just over 1,000 today to as many as 3,000 by 2020. The UK is the world leader in offshore wind, but that is partly because few other countries have shown an interest in the technology, which is more expensive than onshore wind turbines.
O’Hare said: “Our shareholders remain committed to offshore wind in the UK. However, the combination of environmental uncertainties, technical challenges and the option to develop other sites has resulted in their decision not to proceed with phase two.”
The decision follows a recent setback to the project, whereby the main partner behind the consortium said it would sell half of its 50% share to another company. Dong Energy, from Denmark, said that it would sell 25% of the project to the Canadian company La Caisse De Depot Et Placement Du Quebec, for £644m.
In a sign of the growing uncertainty surrounding wind energy in the UK, the head of the Spanish utility company Iberdrola told the Financial Times he was “shocked” by a letter sent by Ed Davey, the energy secretary, to the energy regulator, Ofgem, in which he attacked the profits made by energy suppliers and suggested they could be broken up.
Ignacio Sanchez Galán, chairman and chief executive of Iberdrola, which owns Scottish Power and has strong investments in renewable energy, said: “I was surprised that he would tell Ofgem what to do. It was interference in the work of an independent regulator.”
Green campaigners said renewable energy projects must go ahead, but in line with environmental aims. Harry Huyton, head of energy policy at the RSPB, said: “Climate change is the biggest long term threat to wildlife and we need an urgent transition from fossil fuels to low carbon renewable energy. Wind power is a vital part of our renewable energy mix.” But he said it was crucial to avoid developments at sites that were “particularly special for nature”, such as the Thames estuary.
Michael Fallon, the energy minister, said the UK was powering ahead in offshore wind. “The UK is the world leader, with more deployed than any other country, and a framework in place to retain our global lead. The benefits that offshore wind can bring are clear: as costs fall it can enhance our long-term energy security, reduce our dependence on imports and help reduce our carbon emissions.”
Nick Medic, director of offshore energy at Renewable:UK, which represents the wind industry, said: “What we’re seeing now is a leaner, fitter, trimmer offshore wind sector with more streamlined projects.”
He said that the reduction in the London Array, and that of the proposed Dogger Bank wind farm from 9GW to just over 7GW of generating capacity, were “disappointing” but would not impede the growth of the industry.
Decc estimates that offshore wind could generate 35,000 jobs by 2020, compared with nearly 7,000 jobs today.