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Shipping: Offshore Wind Farms

Volume 688: debated on Monday 22 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they have received regarding dangers to navigation posed by the proposed wind farm development off the Kent and Essex coasts.

My Lords, I presume that the noble Lord is referring to the Government’s recent announcement of approval to the London Array and Thanet offshore wind farms. Representations were received on the position of the wind farms in relation to navigation channels, possible effects on shipborne radar equipment and the operational safety of nearby dredging vessels. These issues were discussed with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and have either been addressed or will be further addressed as part of a consent condition.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although it is scarcely reassuring in light of today’s headline news. Why are the Government determined to add to the dangers of navigation in the channel by ignoring the risk that supertankers and other vessels, often sailing under flags of convenience with masters who are not familiar with the channel and whose radar is distorted by the wind turbines, will crash into the turbines and create repeated environmental disasters? Why were consultations not completed before a decision was reached? What distance between the 98 square mile wind farm and the navigational channels do the Government regard as safe in view of the present circumstances?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a number of questions, rather than just one, but I assure noble Lords that Navy safety was a key consideration in the decision-making process. To that end, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is the Government’s adviser in this matter and has overall responsibility for navigation safety, has been closely involved in considering the wind farm proposal.

The Government consulted the MCA on radar reflection, and I am satisfied that the issue can be managed. The noble Lord also referred to manoeuvrability and safety. Very few vessels currently cross the wind farm site, so its presence should not add significantly to navigation congestion.

The north-west boundary of the wind farm, facing Black Deep, will be in the shallower areas, so mariners will seek to avoid it. There is a minimum of 650 metres between turbines, so we cannot rule out the possibility that some vessels may be able to turn in the wind farm itself, should that be necessary.

My Lords, I am afraid I do not have that information, but I assure your Lordships that safety is of primary importance to the Government. I have no knowledge of any accidents in this area but I will write to my noble friend if I am mistaken.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for siting the London Array in its present position was because the water is so shallow and the cost of constructing wind turbines in shallow water is a great deal lower? Would not a captain of a supertanker who dared to try and cross the area at the moment be prosecuted for putting his vessel in danger, because he would ground it?

My Lords, large vessels can use the Black Deep channel so there is no danger of them running aground. Moreover, the fact that mariners can see the wind farm helps them not to get into difficulties, as they would wish to avoid it. They would also wish to avoid the sandbank in that part of the channel, so I do not see this as a major obstacle.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Germany, which I believe has more wind farms than any other European country, has come to believe that the cost of producing power through wind farms is prohibitive and has apparently decided not to develop offshore wind farms? Bearing that in mind, do the Government consider that the huge cost of building the London Array coupled with a subsidy of £160 million a year is good value for money when the returns are at best 20 per cent of the total supposed power on offer at a minimal saving in terms of CO2 of 0.005 per cent?

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord is right when he says that Germany is the leading country so far as wind farms are concerned. My information is that Denmark is the leading country in Europe and we are not far behind. The Government of course want to boost renewable sources of energy. That is why we have suggested having a renewable obligation of 20 per cent by 2020. If we are to achieve that aim and move towards a low carbon economy, we need to boost wind energy, because that remains the fastest growing renewable technology. As of November 2006, the UK has had some 1,963 megawatts of onshore and offshore wind capacity. The development activity is looking at something like 10,723 megawatts of onshore and offshore wind capacity in the current planning system, so I do not see it as such an unpopular or ineffective form of energy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the UK Marine Pilots Association. Does my noble friend agree that if a large vessel strays from the navigation route specified by a port, whether it hits a wind turbine or sandbank does not make much difference to the end result? Surely, the answer is to put more wind turbines on the sand banks because apart from the birds no one else can use them.

My Lords, that is an interesting point. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which has overall responsibility for safety and is the statutory adviser to the Government, has been consulted on this matter throughout and is fully supportive of these wind farms.

My Lords, regardless of whether the leading country is Denmark or Germany, the second part of the noble Lord's question about the high cost of wind power was pertinent. Bearing in mind that wind power is intermittent, when will the Government think of constructing nuclear power stations instead of leaving it to the market, which clearly cannot go ahead without the effective support of the Government?

My Lords, the Government made it clear in the energy review that they believed that nuclear power had a role to play in the country's future energy mix, but we believe that renewable energy also has an important part to play.