So far Britain's record on wind farming has been all bluster and no bite. But the government's green energy policy is about to trigger a surge in investment – with plenty of opportunities for construction companies.
Believe it or not, Britain's blustery climate is a great asset. The British Isles have the windiest weather in Europe, and earlier this month, 500 people gathered for the four-day British Wind Energy Association conference in Brighton to discuss how to extract money from thin air.

"There has never been the production of renewable technologies on such a scale on British soil before," says energy and construction minister Brian Wilson. In fact, the industry seems to be on the brink of taking off: according to economic consultant Construction Forecasting and Research, £1bn may be spent on wind farm construction in the next decade.

This is partly the result of government legislation: the centrepiece of its green energy policy – the renewable obligation – states that by 2010, all power suppliers must ensure that at least 10% of their electricity comes from renewable sources. If they fail, they will be fined 3p for every kilowatt hour of non-renewable energy above the 90% threshold.

"The renewable obligation has had an obvious effect on the market," says a BWEA spokesperson. Recalling how government policies changed people's petrol-buying habits, she says: "The same thing could happen with energy." Since buying renewable energy will save power suppliers from paying fines, they have an incentive to do so – just as long as the renewable energy costs them less than paying the fine.

This puts renewable energy producers in a strong position. "Anybody who's producing renewable energy is laughing, because they can charge almost three times the usual price for it," says Frank Isack, a researcher at CFR. And he emphasises the importance of wind farming in the mix: "If we're going to get to the 10% renewable energy target, at least 5% will have to come from wind farms."

However, wind farms provide just 0.4% of Britain's power, so a lot more of them need to be built by 2010 – which is where the construction industry comes in. "This market is so big that there are plenty of opportunities out there for many players," says the BWEA spokesperson.

One potential client is James D'Alessandro, a project developer at Powergen Renewables and an old hand when it comes to building wind farms. A mechanical engineer by training, he has worked on several schemes, including the Bowbeat site near Edinburgh, where turbines with a capacity of 31 MW started generating power last month. He says: "We go out to competitive tender for each project – we look for experience, a good health and safety record and confidence that the contractor can deliver on time and to budget."

Anybody who’s producing renewable energy is laughing, because they can charge almost three times the usual price for energy

Frank Isack, economic consultant, CFR

Top construction firms Amec and Sir Robert McAlpine are big players in the wind power market. McAlpine owns Renewable Energy Systems, a Hertfordshire-based company with offices in six countries. It is working on projects that, if they all go ahead, will have a combined capacity of 6000 MW. And its track record includes building the world's biggest wind farm to date, a 278 MW "wind ranch" in King Mountain, Texas, USA.

In 2000, Amec invested in the sector by acquiring Border Wind, a specialist that now goes by the name of Amec Wind. The firm has plans to develop a huge wind farm on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. With a capacity of 600 MW, that one site could provide 1% of the UK's energy needs.

Another Amec project, which has already won planning permission, is a 45 MW wind farm on a Corus steelworks site in Redcar, Teesside. The scheme will put 18 turbines on a 911 ha site that includes a blast furnace and, at the moment, a lot of empty space. Graham Hillier, director of construction at Corus, says: "We've always had this feeling that our site was quite windy. It was underused land."

He predicts that, as well as generating enough electricity for 30,000 households, the wind farm will create new business for Corus. He says: "It gives us access to a new market. We can sell components and engineering services into it."

Until now, the planning system has acted as a brake on wind farm development. A DTI report said 30% of renewable energy schemes were refused planning permission in 1999/2000, and "larger projects fared worse, particularly large wind farms". Just last week, plans to build one of Europe's largest offshore wind farms in Scotland's Solway Firth were put on ice after local councillors voted to oppose the scheme on aesthetic and ecological grounds.

But now the government is considering setting regional targets for renewable energy – the West Midlands, for example, would be expected to generate 2.9 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy in 2010. "That's a way to encourage local authorities to support projects instead of saying 'not in my back yard'," says Anna Stanford, marketing manager at McAlpine's RES.