ConstructionPro Week, Volume: Construction Advisor Today - Issue: 8 - 06/17/2009

Channeling Wind Power the European Way

When the European Parliament ratified the E.U. Economic Recovery Plan on May 6, €3.98 billion of the Plan's total €5 billion funding was earmarked for energy projects, including €565 million for offshore wind energy projects. Additional funding directed at interconnecting the continent's power grids is expected to give additional speed to development of wind development.


"By including offshore wind and electricity grids in the Plan, E.U. decision makers have chosen the right areas to make a difference long term," said Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). "The European Parliament's approval of the Plan should give a real boost to the burgeoning offshore wind sector."


After a budget review in 2010, accord to the EWEA, as-yet-untargeted money could be directed to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, an area where European wind power is already having an effect.


Residents of the Scottish village of Fintry had been exploring ways of increasing their energy efficiency when they heard about plans by West Coast Energy to build a wind farm nearby. They asked the company to build an extra wind turbine and sell it to them.


Now their turbine has been operating since early 2008, and the village is already dedicating some of the £140,000 they have earned so far from the project to energy efficiency projects.


"Around half of the 300 households have already had roof and cavity wall insulation fitted, and some residents have seen their heating bills cut by hundreds of pounds a year," according to the Manchester Guardian.


Fintry may be the first community in the U.K. to have approached a wind farm developer to add a turbine for the town's own use, but it may not be the last. "When the loan on the £2.5 million turbine is paid off, Fintry could be making up to £500,000 a year from the electricity its turbine feeds into the national grid," the Guardian reports.


Of course, a community could choose to spend its additional wind-generated cash on road improvements or a new community center. But when a community makes such a commitment to green energy that it invests in wind power, it is likely to think green in other ways as well.


Community wind energy is not a new concept. Community-owned wind farms and wind power cooperatives are becoming more popular in many countries, including the United States, which boosted its total wind power capacity by 50 percent last year to 25,300 MW. Despite efforts by the United States to catch up with its European counterparts, it has a long way to go. Wind power has a longer and more established history in Europe, especially in places like Denmark and the Netherlands where governments friendly to the concept have had laws and regulations in place for decades to facilitate wind-power ownership for communities and other land owners.


The impact of wind power's rapid rise as a portion of inputs to the power grid has another impact on the greening of buildings, which, after all, are a larger consumer of energy than transportation, industry or any other portion of the social fabric. Those of us who make the green choice to specify wind power as a source for home energy, for example, pay a premium for wind's more expensive power.

As wind farms become a larger piece of power generation, however, that premium is falling. When the total installed capacity of wind power doubles, "the cost per kWh produced for new turbines goes down by between nine and 17 percent," according to the March 2009 EWEA publication "The Economics of Wind Energy."


There's a good reason for the E.U. Economic Recovery Plan's specific focus on funding offshore wind energy. European Union countries, with less than half the land area of the United States, have about three times as many installed wind turbines as the United States. "Most of the suitable wind farm sites in Europe on land have been built and it's becoming difficult to find a location, so the next frontier for wind development is offshore," said Nic Wilson, wind energy applications manager for Vaisala, a Helsinki, Finland-based company that has added environmental measurements for wind farms to its core base of weather and industrial instrumentation.


At the beginning of 2009, the European Union had 1,471 MW of offshore wind power capacity in place, just over two percent of its total installed capacity of 64,935 MW (which, incidentally, is more than half of the installed capacity on the planet).


Now the European Union plans to increase wind power from providing some four percent of its power in 2008 to as much as 28 percent by 2030, the equivalent of 85 percent of E.U. household consumption. Offshore wind power will be a big piece of that.


EWEA estimates that between 20 and 40 GW of offshore wind energy capacity will be operating in the European Union by 2020. "A fully developed European offshore wind resource could deliver a capacity of several hundred GW to supply our future energy demands," according to the EWEA report "Delivering Offshore Wind Power in Europe."


"Developing less than 5% of the North Sea surface area would enable offshore wind to supply roughly one-quarter of the E.U.'s current electricity needs."


Offshore wind farms can access higher and more predictable wind speeds, as well as avoiding conflicts with other kinds of land use. Wind turbines offshore can be larger, allowing for more economies of scale.


"On land, you have to think about how you're going to transport turbine components across remote areas with complex terrain," Nic Wilson said. "Offshore, you can use large cranes and technology transferred from the oil and gas industry, large barges to transfer components."


Offshore wind capacity is still about 50 percent more expensive than onshore wind. "On average," according to the EWEA, "the expected investment costs for a new offshore wind farm are currently in the range of 2.0 to 2.2 million €/MW," although they range from €1.2 million to 2.7 million per MW.


Assuming 2.1 million, one might imagine the E.U. Economic Recovery Plan's €565 million for offshore wind should buy some 270 MW of new offshore wind capacity, a healthy boost toward the European Union's windy offshore future.

By Robert Ebisch




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