Rising from the cold waters like forests of giant metallic trees, a growing number of offshore wind farms now stand in the UK's seas. The nation notorious for its stormy weather is looking to harness wind as a cheap and renewable source of power.
With the country's crumbling nuclear and coal power plants threatening to lead to an energy shortfall in the coming years, advocates say wind energy can be the centrepiece of the UK's efforts to emerge as a global leader in renewables – and the government is throwing its weight behind it.
The government has announced official targets of 27,000 employees in the wind energy sector and a third of power generated by wind turbines by 2030, in a global market predicted to be worth £30 billion (Dh145bn) by that time. Offshore wind sites meet 7 per cent of the UK's energy needs – a far cry from the 2030 goal.
British Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark says offshore wind will be "an integral part of a low-cost, low-carbon, flexible grid system and boost the productivity and competitiveness of the UK supply chain" as policymakers focus on reducing start-up costs to reap the long-term rewards.
The government says the programme marks the first time the UK will generate more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels, with as much as 70 per cent set to come from low-carbon sources by 2030, according to analyst predictions.
Mr Clark says about 430,000 people are employed in low-carbon business or its related supply chains in the UK – with 7,200 directly employed in offshore wind. Under the new plan, that labour force will have to quadruple in the coming decade.
"This new deal will drive a surge in the clean, green offshore wind revolution that is powering homes and businesses across the UK, bringing investment into coastal communities and ensuring we maintain our position as global leaders in this growing sector," says Claire Perry, Energy and Clean Growth Minister.
“By 2030 a third of our electricity will come from offshore wind, generating thousands of high-quality jobs across the UK, a strong UK supply chain and a fivefold increase in exports,” he says.
Wind power is among a small group of energy generators that have a limited impact on the environment. Generally, offshore farms are preferable because wind speeds there are higher and consistent.
“Offshore wind is set to take its place at the heart of our low-carbon, affordable and reliable electricity system of the future,” says Benj Sykes, a co-chair of the Offshore Wind Industry Council and UK country manager for offshore at Orsted, the Danish industry giant behind the world’s largest offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea.
Despite the benefits, even wind farms – and the announcement by the British government – have their detractors.
For Greenpeace, if anything, the target is not ambitious enough. Britain’s nuclear power stations are sputtering, failing to hit the dizzy heights expected.
The environmental charity group said the government target to hit 30 gigawatts a year by 2030 is “woefully inadequate”. Greenpeace urged it to raise its target of 30GW by 2030 to 45GW, citing potential shortfalls caused by faltering plans to build more nuclear power stations.
“The government’s plans for a fleet of new nuclear reactors has collapsed. This leaves Britain with a big energy gap in future. It means the government’s latest offshore wind target of 30GW by 2030 is woefully inadequate,” says John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.
“Renewable power now presents the best opportunity for cheaper, cleaner and faster decarbonisation. Wind and solar must be tripled between now and 2030, with offshore wind the future backbone of the UK’s energy system,” says Mr Sauven. He wants the UK to build on its global leadership in the industry and use it to create more jobs and export British expertise abroad.
A separate Greenpeace statement says: “The government’s new nuclear reactor programme now appears unlikely to produce more than one new power station by 2030, and certainly not the six planned. There is a huge shortfall in the UK’s projected energy capacity in the second half of the next decade.”
Rachel Reeves, who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, says Britain's faltering nuclear plants have left "a giant hole in its energy policy" that have heightened concerns that the government is failing to spur renewable alternatives.
“Given dirty coal is due to go offline, and the prospects for nuclear looking uncertain, it’s vital the government comes forward with a Plan B to plug the energy gap,” she says .
Offshore wind farms are certainly not a perfect solution, however. At the very least, they are expensive and the predictions of 30GW a year by 2030 come with the caveat that for this to happen, costs must come down. "When you build an offshore wind farm you'll spend millions of pounds already doing environmental impact assessments," says a spokesman for Renewable UK, the industry trade body.
Its environmental footprint is small, but not zero. Critics worry about its impact on marine life, disruption to shipping lanes and its potential visual eyesore.
“Spinning turbine blades can pose a threat to flying wildlife like birds and bats,” according to a US Department of Energy paper.
The Renewable UK spokesman says the government had pledged to work with conservation organisations and seafarers to "make sure that any impact of building out more offshore wind projects are acceptable in environmental terms and for other users of the sea as well".
“Obviously we recognise that it’s very, very important to make sure the activities that have been taking place in the sea for years and years are not affected adversely by building offshore wind farms,” he says.
Any ventures would have to undergo a strict, far-reaching assessment by the government at the secretary of state level. Any project that does not meet the guidelines will be turned down, says Renewable UK.
“Offshore wind developers have to jump through a lot of hoops in terms of environmental stuff to get anything off the ground and rightly so.
“We are generating clean energy but realise that any impact we are creating offshore wind farms has to be acceptable,” the spokesman said.