Wind turbine farms in Britain have grown in the last 10 years - is the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind power?
By Ganesh Rao, data journalist, and Philip Whiteside, Sky News international news reporter
Friday 30 April 2021 18:12, UK
The last 10 years have seen unprecedented growth in the contribution of wind power to the UK's energy needs. Thousands of wind turbines have been erected both onshore and offshore, on sites that have been heralded as the bedrock of the UK's bid to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Politicians see wind power as so important, Boris Johnson has pledged the UK will become the Saudi Arabia of wind, a reference to oil production giant.
But, how do the government's plans stack up? Is the UK really going to be the largest wind energy producer on the planet?
The growth in wind turbines
In the last 20 years, the contribution of wind power to the UK's energy needs has gone from around 320MW (in 2001) to more than 24GW (in 2021) - a 73-fold increase.
Nearly 20GW of that has come on stream in the last 10 years.
One of the massive offshore wind farms the government has been keen to promote, Hornsea One, is now the largest offshore wind farm in the world with an operational capacity of over 1.2GW. Centred about 110km off the Yorkshire and Norfolk coasts, the full site has an area of about 1,800 square miles, and capacity is planned to increase to 6GW - nearly three times that of the biggest gas turbine site at present in Pembroke.
By 2019, the expansion in the number of farms meant wind was accounting for almost one fifth of the UK's total generation. But on some days, up to half of all the UK's electricity needs have been met by wind.
While there are now hundreds of sites across the UK and its territorial waters, the plan is to go further. The National Grid has produced more and less optimistic future outcomes, but this is the "middle" scenario:
The government's recent white paper on the future of energy says that by 2030 it plans to increase offshore wind capacity to 40GW, so as to generate more power than all the homes in the UK use today.
One gigawatt of that will come from a revolutionary floating wind farm, the white paper says.
But wind is only one part of an energy plan that will see the UK's power needs provided from a number of renewable sources and then reduced by a host of technology-driven efficiency initiatives, all aimed at cutting the amount of CO2 the country emits.
The UK compared to other nations
The UK has made significant progress but it has come from some distance behind other nations which embraced wind power much earlier.
Although it is currently 6th globally in terms of wind output overall, it is way behind China, for example, producing just a tenth of its wind energy. Another way to look at it is to examine how much wind power has been produced per person:
The increase in the amount of energy being generated by wind has come as the cost of producing each MWh (megawatt-hour) has come down. Offshore wind energy now costs around £40-50/MWh, over the lifetime of a project, compared to more than double that for gas turbines, when carbon offset costs are taken into account.
It has led to a boom in the sector, with thousands of people now employed in constructing the burgeoning wind farm fields.
The government's December 2020 white paper on the future of energy says that the offshore wind sector supports an estimated 7,200 direct UK jobs.
But the UK lags behind other European nations in manufacturing wind turbines.
The companies that dominate the wind turbine manufacturing and installation sector are from those countries that took an early lead.
Vestas is Danish, Siemens Gamesa is Spanish and GE Renewable Energy is headquartered in Paris. Enercon, Nordex and Senvion are all German. Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Spain are all countries that are in the top five for wind energy per capita.
ISo, can the UK become the Saudi Arabia of wind?
In December, while outlining the government's ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, the prime minister said: "We want to turn the UK into the Saudi Arabia of wind power generation, enough wind power by 2030 to supply every single one of our homes with electricity."
Saudi Arabia is cited because it has for decades been one of the world's top three biggest producers of oil, on which the world's economy has largely relied for generations. For many years, it was the world's top producer, according to BP, and it has been the world's top exporter of oil since the mid-1980s, when it was briefly overtaken by the USSR, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
While the government has set out plans to provide enough wind energy for all homes by 2030, currently, it is a net importer of energy.
There is nothing in the government's December 2020 energy white paper indicating plans to export significant amounts of wind energy in the future other than saying that a plan in increased interconnectedness will "position us as a potential net exporter of excess green energy".
What the white paper does say is that the plan to increase offshore wind capacity to 40GW will provide the UK with "the platform to target a five-fold increase in exports of offshore wind goods and services to at least £2.6bn a year by 2030".
The white paper adds: "The sector could bring £3bn GVA (gross value added) a year by 2030, of which £1bn is export related.
"This new investment could create around 2,000 construction jobs, representing high quality employment opportunities in many coastal regions... This... alongside other offshore wind commitments will enable the... sector to support up to 30,000 direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs in ports, factories and the supply chains by 2030."
Other export possibilities worth billions from the green energy boom include carbon capture, using the former North Sea oil fields as a resource and the development of other clean energy technologies, like heat pumps, battery and other storage and so on.