UK signs up to North Sea supergrid vision

Nine European countries have today signed a major agreement to develop the world's first large-scale offshore wind energy grid in the North and Irish seas, providing a boost to the continent's fast-expanding offshore wind industry.

UK energy minister Lord Hunt joined with ministers from Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland to sign the agreement on the sidelines of today's European Council meeting in Brussels.

Dubbed the North Seas Countries' Offshore Grid Initiative, the agreement will see each of the nations co-operate on the development of a new offshore energy grid that would allow energy generated by offshore wind farms to be easily transmitted between North Sea countries.

Ministers said the initial aim of the initiative was to develop a strategic work plan in early 2010 that would co-ordinate offshore infrastructure development. This plan would then be formally enshrined in a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed later in 2010.

The agreement follows a report in September from the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), which predicted that 10 per cent of Europe's electricity needs could be met by offshore wind, but only if new developments are supported by an extended offshore energy grid.

Speaking at the release of the report, EWEA chief executive Christian Kjaer called on the commission to develop a blueprint for a North Sea grid based on the trade group's report.

"EWEA's new offshore network plan will provide a truly pan-European electricity superhighway," he said. "This will bring affordable electricity to consumers, reduce import dependence, cut CO2 emissions and allow Europe to access its largest domestic energy source - offshore wind."

In related news, Lord Hunt announced that £5m of research grants were today awarded to three leading wind energy firms - Vestas, Clipper Windpower, and Mitsubishi Power Systems.

Clipper is to receive £2.5m towards its Britannia Project which aims to build the world's largest wind turbine blades in the North East, while Mitsubishi will receive just over £800,000 to further its UK research projects.

Meanwhile, Vestas has controversially been awarded £1.75m and a further £1.75m from the SEEDA development agency to help fund the expansion of its R &D centre on the Isle of Wight. The company was at the heart of a major political row this summer when it closed its production facility on the Isle of Wight - a decision that many commentators interpreted as evidence that the government's renewable energy policies are failing.

Vestas said the new funding would allow the company to expand its existing R &D facility from 160 staff to more than 200 in 2011. It added that it planned to further expand the new research centre to employ nearly 400 staff.

"With this investment Vestas has chosen the UK as its location to build a strategically vital part of its global technology capability," said Rob Sauven, managing director for Vestas Technology R&D. "We will be able to build and test the largest blades in the world, including those related to our recent offshore product announcements."

Lord Hunt also announced today that the Department of Energy and Climate Change had appointed Professor Bernard Bulkin as the expert chairman of the department's newly formed Office for Renewable Energy Deployment, which was launched as part of this summer's low-carbon transition plan."

Bulkin is a Professorial Fellow at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and was formerly chief scientist at BP. He is also a partner with clean technology venture capital firm Vantage Point and is expected to work closely with both government and industry to accelerate the rollout of renewable energy technologies.

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