IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What the U.S. can learn from the U.K. about wind power

As the United States looks to pour billions into offshore wind development, the COP26 host nation has some lessons to share.
Whitelee Wind Farm, Eaglesham, Glasgow, Scotland.
With 80 miles of trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding, Whitelee is the U.K.’s largest onshore wind farm.Duncan McGlynn for NBC News

EAGLESHAM, Scotland — As President Joe Biden’s administration puts its muscle behind wind power with plans to develop large-scale wind farms along the entire United States coastline, the administration can look at how the windiest nation in Europe is transforming its energy grid for an example of how to proceed.

In the search for renewable sources of energy, the United Kingdom has embraced wind power. In 2020, the country generated as much as 24 percent of its electricity from wind power — enough to supply 18.5 million homes, according to government statistics. 

With usually reliable winds, the U.K. currently has the highest number of offshore turbines installed in the world, with China at a close second.

Experts and industry leaders say it offers valuable lessons on creating a viable market for wind power at the ambitious scale the Biden administration hopes to meet in order to confront climate change and help transition the U.S. economy to renewable energy.

“The U.S. is going to benefit hugely from the early investment that European governments have put into offshore wind,” said Oliver Metcalfe, a wind power analyst at BloombergNEF in London, an independent research group.

Big American plans

On Oct. 13, the White House announced plans to lease federal waters off of the East and West Coasts and Gulf of Mexico to develop commercial wind farms.

The move is part of Biden’s goal to have 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind power produced in the United States by 2030. The White House says that would generate enough electricity to power more than 10 million homes and in the process create 77,000 jobs. 

But there is a chasm between where the U.S. is now and where it wants to be within the next decade when it comes to offshore wind power.

“We’re the first generation to understand the science and implications of climate change and we’re the last generation to be able to do something about it.”

Lindsay McQuade, CEO ScottishPower Renewables

The U.S. is not new to wind power; onshore wind in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa supplied 8.2 percent of the country’s total electricity generation in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Energy

But despite its long coastlines, offshore wind has been a largely untapped resource in the U.S. With a population of about 332 million people, the U.S. currently has just two operational offshore wind farms — off Rhode Island and Virginia — with the capacity to produce 42 megawatts of electricity between them.  

In contrast, the U.K., with a population of 67 million people, has 2,297 offshore wind turbines with the capacity to produce 10,415 megawatts of electricity.

Power station or a park?

Just outside of central Glasgow, the host city for the U.N. climate change conference known as COP26, the fruits of years of effort to move away from fossil fuels can be seen and heard

Whitelee Windfarm, the U.K.’s largest onshore wind farm, spreads across 30 square miles on the Eaglesham Moor and includes more than 80 miles of trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding.

Lindsay McQuade, CEO of ScottishPower Renewables, which owns Whitelee, calls it a “power station that’s also a country park.” 

With its 539 megawatt capacity, it generates enough electricity for 350,000 homes — more than half the population of Glasgow. 

On a recent gusty fall day, Ian and Fiona Gardner, both 71, were walking their dogs among the wind farm’s 360-foot-tall turbines  

Fiona and Ian Gardner walk their two labs in Whitelee "six days out of seven."Duncan McGlynn for NBC News

“This is a major contribution to Scotland, to become independent from oil by 2035,” Ian Gardner, an accountant, said. 

Thanks to the rapid technological advances in turbine technology, this wind farm that was completed in 2009, is now practically old school. The latest crop of onshore turbines typically generate double the current capacity of Whitelee’s turbines.

“It took us 20 years to build 2 gigawatts of power. And we’re going to double that in five  years,” said McQuade, an economist. “We can do that because machines are big, efficient, cheap and the supply chain is there.” 

 ‘Game-changer’

The biggest operational offshore wind farm in the world right now, Hornsea Project One, is about 75 miles off England’s Yorkshire coast in the North Sea.

Owned and operated by Orsted, a former Danish oil and gas giant, in partnership with Global Infrastructure Partners, its 174 turbines have the capacity to generate 1.2 gigawatts — enough to power over 1 million homes and roughly equivalent to a nuclear power plant. 

Benj Sykes, Vice President of U.K. Offshore Wind at Orsted, called Hornsea One a “game changer” in a recent phone interview, citing it as an example of how the industry has scaled up its output to compete with traditional power plants.

A hiker enjoys the scenery beneath Whitelee's turbines.Duncan McGlynn for NBC News

But massive projects like Hornsea One took decades to get up and running, as well as government help. According to Malte Jansen, a research associate at the Centre of Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, the British government helped facilitate a “paradigm shift” in renewable energy in 2013.

The electricity market reform policy set up a framework to incentivize investment in offshore wind farms by creating an auction system that guarantees electricity prices to developers in 15-year contracts. 

This means there is no upside in terms of market price fluctuation, but there is no downside either. The policy essentially “de-risked the investment,” Jansen said.

The state contracts allowed the industry to innovate and learn how to develop even larger and more efficient turbines with blades that stretch as long as 267 feet, about three-quarters the size of a U.S. football field. 

While this approach helped companies and investors, it will also have an unintended beneficiary — the U.S., Metcalfe from BloombergNEF said. 

Developers are “taking the lessons they’ve learned building projects in Europe, the cost reductions that they’ve achieved building projects in Europe and are now bringing those to the U.S. market,” he said.

Not a panacea

The U.K. is an example and a testing space for the U.S. when it comes to wind energy, and the technology is not without its drawbacks — namely, no energy is produced when the wind doesn’t blow.

After record high wind power generation in the U.K. in 2020, lower wind speed in April to June of this year decreased wind power generation by 14 percent, according to a government report.  

That drop added to the U.K. and Europe’s energy crunch

Then there’s the people factor. Both  onshore and offshore wind projects have long generated opposition from local communities, fishermen and environmentalists who say the huge turbines jeopardize ecosystems, birds and marine wildlife.

Rachel Connor, 65, a retired radiologist, lives near Whitelee  Windfarm and is a member of “Scotland Against Spin,” a grassroots organization whose 2,500 members campaign against what they say is the ceaseless spread of wind turbines across Scotland. They argue that wind turbines are destroying the landscape while energy companies profit.  

To her, one of the big problems is that the public only hears the “green energy is good’’ side of the story and that they don’t hear from the communities that coexist with turbines the size of skyscrapers.

“People need to get more used to seeing where their power comes from,” Lindsay McQuade, CEO of Scottish Renewables, said.Duncan McGlynn for NBC News

“Our voices have been repressed,” Connor said. “We’re regarded as troublemakers, as cranks, as anti-renewables. Most of us are just ordinary people who are wind farm neighbors.”

Back at Whitelee, McQuade bragged that the visitor’s center managed by the Glasgow Science Centre has had over 1 million guests.  

She added that she had noticed a “palpable shift” in public attitudes toward climate change and renewables.

“This is the decade of difference,” she said. “We’re the first generation to understand the science and implications of climate change and we’re the last generation to be able to do something about it.”