Energy Economist: A trip down the Thames provides a view into UK wind policy

The Thames estuary has been transformed by offshore wind into a 21st Century seascape unique in form and function. Platts Energy Economist takes a trip down the famous river as part of its series of letters from capitals of key interest to the energy sector. The article appears below, as an advance peek at the story that will appear in the August 28 edition of Energy Economist.

Energy Economist provides critical analysis of energy sector trends and events globally for the power, coal, gas and oil industries. The next edition includes in-depth features on the thermal coal market, India’s gas price reform, Saudi Arabian oil exports, Canadian oil sands, nuclear prospects in Europe, Iraq and the fallacy of price forecasting. As editor-in-chief of Energy Economist, I wrote the piece below.

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Passage down the Thames and along the South Eastern coast of England provides a fascinating picture of the transformation of the UK’s industrial landscape, and particularly so for its changing energy system. The masts of tall ships in an earlier age of wind have centuries later been replaced by a forest of offshore wind turbines, the visual impact of which is only fully appreciated by sea.

The voyage started at St. Katharine dock, a small inner city haven of bistros and moorings, that lies in the shadow of a great feat of British engineering, Tower Bridge, which opened in 1894. It stands in stark contrast to the modernistic Millennium Dome, now rebranded the O2, which soon came into sight in the moonlight provided by a 3 a.m. departure aboard the 60 ft Wylie Wanderer.

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The Dome, designed by architect Richard Rogers, and a familiar sight for Platts employees from their Canary Wharf encampment, is a huge canopy, the lifespan of which is about 25 years. Completed in 1999, just as ‘sustainability’ was becoming a watchword for politicians and business alike, the wastefulness of this construction remains a national embarrassment.

However, one’s faith in British design and engineering was quickly restored, as the outgoing tide whipped the Wylie Wanderer through the Thames barrier, one of the largest movable flood defenses in the world. Completed in 1982, it looks like a series of miniature Sydney opera houses. Although likely to be increasingly tested by climate change, the barrier is designed to protect London from sea surges beyond 2030.

As the London skyline was left behind and the Thames widened, the impact of the business end of industry past and present became evident. The banks of the Thames are littered with old and existing industrial projects that are for the most part ugly and functional. Rusting conveyor belts protrude into the river to load barges; many appear as if they haven’t seen a barge in years.

But as the estuary emerges into the channel a new and dramatic industrial seascape unfolds; a morning mist vision that would have had been a call to arms for Don Quixote. Set aside from the main navigational channels, offshore wind turbines rise on the seaward horizon in every direction. In contrast to conveyor belts and concrete docks, they appeared benign and beautiful, spinning slowly in the August dawn.

The UK had 8,445 MW of wind capacity installed as of end-2012. Considering the country’s wind resource, size, and supposed commitment to green energy, this is relatively little in comparison with world leaders like Denmark, Germany and Spain. However, the UK stands out in the area of offshore wind, with 2,948 MW capacity installed by end-2012, more than any country in the world.

The multiple wind farms of the Thames estuary are the first shallow-water foray of a much larger ambition, extending into ever deeper waters. This is the technological battle front where lessons are being learnt and experienced gained to create a vast wind network servicing northern Europe; geographical extension and international subsea interconnectors hopefully ameliorating the impact of wind’s intermittency.

It may be green, but be under no illusion that it is cheap. NIMBYism and the distribution of control through the UK’s tortuous planning procedures have left hundreds if not thousands of viable cheaper onshore wind sites “turbine free.” The UK public and its politicians have not really embraced the need for green power when the price is an aesthetic one, paid by the rolling hills of the home counties and their picturesque villages. This and the availability of sites offshore this island on the edge of Europe have blown the UK’s wind industry out to sea.

Nor is offshore wind reliable. The Meteorological Office’s forecast of Beaufort scale wind speeds of 3-4 turning 5, proved wide of the mark.

As the sun started to warm the bones of the Wylie Wanderer’s crew, the yacht’s sails drooped, the London Array’s turbines slowed to a still and the skipper cranked up the trusty 92 hp diesel engine. Fired by good old fossil fuel we rounded Broadstairs, inshore of Thanet wind farm, and headed south.

Much tea and many sandwiches later, another energy landmark hove into view, and just as the wind farms do, provided a useful reference point for skipper Mark Blackburn. Dungeness Nuclear Power Station comprises four reactors, two of which were permanently shut at the end of 2006. Dungeness B’s two 520 MW reactors remain operational.

Built on the largest shingle peninsula in Europe, the site is an extraordinary coastal eyesore. The seaward facades of the main buildings have been painted in muted pastel colors in an ambitious but ultimately pitiful attempt to blend with the greys, greens and blues of the natural environment. The two functioning units are to be decommissioned in 2018. The process for all four reactors will take decades, leaving an ugly blot in this area of great environmental sensitivity.

The visual impact of offshore wind in the Thames’ mouth is without question extraordinary. Unseen in its entirety from land, it has become an industrial seascape unique to the 21st century and singular in both aesthetic and function. It has been created by policy and goals that defy immediate economics.

It is tempting to jump forward to 2094 when Tower Bridge will almost certainly be celebrating its 200th anniversary, the Millennium Dome forgotten, the Thames barrier redeveloped, Dungeness a silent, concrete sarcophagus, and wonder if there will be still be wind mills spinning in the sea to tilt at, or whether they too will have served their purpose, overtaken by technology.


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  1. Kathy Larsen at August 23, 2013 5:33 pm

    Ross, nice. I am wondering if the windmills are so universally admired as “benign and beautiful.” I myself agree they can be so. I think of films and TV shows set in European locales where a single windmill or a series appear — I always find them almost magical. It’s interesting that people find the old wooden windmills romantic and beautiful but view the new ones as eyesores. … I do hope, though, that we can get beyond this generation of technology before too long, and then … will these hulks, rusted out, stand as ugly blots?

     

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