“Wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding,” Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, said in 2013. Seven years on and a lot has changed. Johnson, as Prime Minister, now proclaims his desire to see the UK as the “Saudi Arabia of Wind Power”, having become, as he puts it, “a complete evangelist” for it.
Johnson has pledged that all UK homes will be powered by offshore wind turbines, by 2030. In his hope to “build back greener”, the PM envisages such a plan will boost the economy, combat climate change, and create thousands of jobs. However, is the sector in shape to crown the UK as king of offshore wind?
Offshore wind is said to be cheaper than both gas and nuclear power options in the UK
Back in 2011, the then Department of Energy & Climate Change published the first ‘UK Renewable Energy Roadmap’. Setting out a “comprehensive suite of targeted, practical actions” in taking renewable energy forward, including offshore wind, it detailed the need to bring costs down and attract investment. In the Ministerial Foreword of the report, the authors described the UK as the world leader in offshore wind, and as having the best wind resource in Europe.
The UK is still the world leader in offshore wind with 10.4 GW of capacity. In the report, the cost of offshore wind was forecast to fall to £100 / MWh in 2020, but last year the UK secured contracts for a total of 5 GW capacity at almost half that, a record low. It is no wonder then that offshore wind is said to be cheaper than both gas and nuclear power options in the UK.
Given the economic viability of offshore wind, it seems feasible that it will play an important part in the overall energy mix for the UK. A mix of sources is important as dependence on any one energy source leads to less resilient energy generation capability.
The PM’s pledge targets a total of 40 GW capacity for offshore wind. This would likely exceed electricity demands just from homes, which represent around a third of the UK’s total electricity demand. Industry and offices weigh-in for the rest. Compared to the current capacity of offshore wind, this represents an almost quadrupling in production over the next 10 years.
“We should achieve [40 GW], and power past it”
In November 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted in its Offshore Wind Outlook that the UK could only expect 26.9 GW offshore wind capacity in 2030. The Outlook also states that the potential capacity of offshore wind across the world could meet its electricity demand many times over, should the resources available in markets today be exploited fully. Therefore, the 40 GW is not unachievable should companies and governments be willing to work at it, and indeed it seems they will.
Keith Anderson, chief executive of Scottish Power, echoes this sentiment speaking to The Guardian, believing that this target can be achieved. He stresses that 40 GW should not be viewed as a cap, saying, “We should achieve that, and power past it.”
The government also announced £160 million to upgrade ports and factories, for wind turbine manufacture and deployment, particularly in Humberside and Teesside. Leaders of major players in the UK’s offshore wind sector warmly welcomed the announcement and the targets, emphasising how the challenge of achieving 40 GW will boost local economies and jobs (2,000 construction jobs, and direct or indirect support of 60,000 further jobs), whilst bringing large investments.
Progress in Offshore Wind
The Lincolnshire seaport town of Grimsby has been rejuvenated since development of offshore wind began there. Having suffered a decline in its historical fishing prowess, Grimsby was in economic decline until companies such as the Danish company Ørsted generated new jobs in offshore wind.
One rotation of a modern wind turbine can power a home for 29 hours
Ørsted has under its name 12 operational, offshore wind farms that produce power for 4.2 million homes, a sizeable chunk of the 27.8 million UK households recorded by the ONS. The UK has the three largest offshore wind farms in the world developed with Ørsted: the London Array in 2012, the Walney Extension in 2018, and Hornsey 1 commissioned in 2019. Each has greater capacity than the last and Hornsey 1 is the first offshore wind farm with a capacity over 1 GW. It will soon be overtaken by Hornsea 2 in 2022, which will power over 1.3 million homes alone.
One rotation of a modern wind turbine can power a home for 29 hours and has a lifespan of around 25 years—an indication of how much energy wind farms can generate. However, having one installed is a process that takes many years. Connecting to the grid, construction, procurement, financing, applying to the grid, and conducting environmental assessments all take place over several years. Within these wider supply chains are where many jobs are created.
For all of this to occur, the starting point is obtaining leasing from The Crown Estate who manages and grants rights to areas of the UK’s seabed. When issuing rights, they take into consideration a whole host of concerns both environmental and economic. Currently, they are offering their largest round of offshore wind leasing in a decade, which has the potential of at least 7 GW of capacity. Having already agreed on leasing for six extension projects, a further 2.8 GW capacity will be expected too.
As part of our 2017 Offshore Wind Extensions opportunity, we are delighted to have signed Agreements for Lease with six proposed offshore wind project extensions, which together have the potential to deliver 2.8 GW of new capacity?
— The Crown Estate (@TheCrownEstate) September 28, 2020
Combined with previous rounds of leasing and projects currently ongoing or planned the UK is set to go beyond 40 GW, say S&P Global. Any extra capacity would be welcomed as clean hydrogen fuel can be generated from surplus wind energy.
Another aspect of the government’s targets is for 1 GW of offshore wind capacity to come from floating wind turbines. Without the need for foundations dug into the seabed, these turbines can be placed in much deeper waters where winds are much higher. The UK had the first floating offshore wind farm commissioned in 2017 by Equinor, known as Hywind, off the northeast coast of Scotland.
The Wider Implications
Despite the environmental and economic benefits of wind, there are certain issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, the government aims to have at least 60% of wind farm ‘contents’ produced in the UK. This would help increase the number of green jobs. Historically, however, such promised jobs have not materialised due to much of the supply chain ending up overseas.
This decade will be make-or-break in achieving the 2050 net-zero carbon target for the nation
Secondly, onshore wind, which currently has a greater capacity than offshore in the UK seems to be getting much less support from the government. Even though there is almost 75% public support for onshore wind, its rate of progress has declined significantly over the past five years.
In England, only 8 new or extension onshore wind farm applications were submitted between 2015 and 2020. This is down from 237 in the previous five years, despite being cheaper to maintain than offshore. The reasoning for this is in part down to near-impossible-to-meet planning restrictions imposed by the government in 2015.
The offshore wind sector in the UK is highly regarded. Some of the largest projects in the world, continually outsizing each other in capacity and innovation, grace the waters around the British Isles. Off the Yorkshire, and Scottish coastlines and lying beyond Merseyside, East Anglia, and Teesside, offshore wind farms are powering homes across the country.
This decade will be make-or-break in achieving the 2050 net-zero carbon target for the nation. The rise of offshore wind and other renewable energy sources will be imperative for success.
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