IN SEVEN years' time Britain will be generating enough electricity from offshore wind to power every home in the South- east of England. Eight million households running on green, pollution-free energy. Science fact or science fiction? A realistic goal for UK energy policy or a lot of hot air?
For supporters of renewable energy, the holy grail of producing 10 per cent of the country's electricity from "green" sources by 2010 came a big step closer yesterday when the Government gave the go-ahead for the most ambitious programme of offshore wind farms yet seen.
Britain is still a long way from a full-blown energy crisis but time is eating away its margin of comfort. The Government has clearly decided that wind power is the answer, not just to its environmental goals but also to the question of security of supply.
Nuclear is off the agenda for the time being and much of our indigenous coal resources will be gone in a decade. The UK will become a net importer of gas by 2006 and of oil by 2010. By 2020, the country could be dependent on imported energy for 80 per cent of its needs, much of it gas piped in from potentially unstable regions of the world.
Under the plans announced yesterday by Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity could be in operation by the end of the decade. That would be enough to power one in six of the country's households or meet 5 per cent of total UK electricity demand. Together with a similar contribution from onshore wind farms, Britain would be capable of hitting its 2010 target comfortably.
The environmental lobby, predictably enough, gave Ms Hewitt's announcement a rapturous welcome. Greenpeace said it "marks the dawn of a new clean energy era", while Friends of the Earth said it marked a "sea change" in UK energy policy.
Tim Yeo, Ms Hewitt's Conservative shadow, was more sceptical. He said the pledge to power one in six homes with wind energy "sets a new standard of absurdity", adding that offshore wind could not be economic without big subsidies from the taxpayer.
The new wind farms - to be erected in the Thames Estuary, the Greater Wash and off the north-west coast of Britain between North Wales and the Solway Firth - will be big business, creating 20,000 jobs and generating pounds 6bn worth of orders.
They will also dwarf those currently being built. Britain's first commercial offshore wind farm of any size, North Hoyle off the Welsh coastline, will open around the turn of the year. Developed by National Wind Power, part of Innogy, it will consist of 30 turbines generating 60 megawatts of power.
The new generation of wind farms announced yesterday by Ms Hewitt will be 10 times the size - 100 or more giant turbines each the height of the London Eye producing up to 500 megawatts of electricity and visible from land for miles.
For that reason, and for the protection of migrating seabirds and inshore fishermen, the Government has stipulated this new breed of wind farms must be a minimum of five miles offshore and, in some cases, as much as eight miles from land. "On a cloudy day they will be scarcely visible and on a sunny day they will look like the tiny masts of distant yachts," says Ms Hewitt.
So far the Government and its Crown Resources agency, which owns the rights to the seabed around the UK coast, have approved 17 smaller wind farm developments, eight of which have been granted full consent. They each take about six months to install. …