Associate feature: harnessing offshore wind to create a clean energy future
In the field of renewable energies, the phrase “world leading” is often used. Most often, it’s said by governments and businesses in an aspirational way, with an eye to an ambitious target a decade or two in the future.
But there is a sector in which the UK can genuinely claim to be a world leader: offshore wind power.
It doesn’t seem widely appreciated among the public, perhaps in part because of the quiet, out-of-sight nature of offshore wind. But the UK has more installed electricity generating capacity than any other country, providing enough clean energy to power 4.5 million homes.
That’s how it is today. And in October, new targets were set to keep the UK at the forefront of low-cost, clean power generation.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Conservative party conference that by 2030 the UK will be generating enough energy from offshore wind to power every home in the nation.
As well as helping to meet the nation’s carbon reduction targets, Johnson said, the push would feed into the UK Government’s ‘build back better’ strategy - and into Scotland’s green recovery.
The target of 40GW by 2030 was welcomed by the renewables industry as well as by the Committee on Climate Change. As part of the strategy, at least 1GW should be generated through innovation in floating offshore wind turbines.
Scotland - which has been referred to on more than one occasion over the years as the nascent ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’ - will be key to the transformation, under the even more urgent target of achieving net-zero by 2045. One quarter of the UK target is expected to be generated off Scottish coasts.
ScotWind, the leasing scheme for seabed sites managed by Crown Estate Scotland, is Scotland’s first significant leasing round in 10 years. In October the Scottish Government published its Sectoral Marine Plan to inform how the developments from the next round should be managed sustainably.
And so the next ten years look set to be defined by a burst of activity in developing offshore wind farms. Now the question is, how to make it all happen.
Curiously, the inflection point that saw offshore wind power become the nation’s leading route to a clean energy future came only a couple of years ago.
“In the UK, we started the journey to offshore wind about 20 years ago now,” says Duncan Clark, the UK head of region for Ørsted, the renewable energy company. Ørsted has years of international experience developing, constructing and operating wind farms, currently managing 12 in the UK’s waters alone.
“In the two decades since, there’s been a structured step up in scale - in distance from shore and, in parallel, a set of governments and regulators who have always seen offshore wind as an exciting opportunity,” Clark says.
In the past five years, the cost of new offshore electricity has fallen by more than 50 per cent, making the future the Prime Minister set out this year seem all the more possible.
Twenty years ago, Clark says, it was “a few far-sighted industry enthusiasts” championing the potential of the UK’s wealth of seabed. But there was a point when the technological and policy reality seemed to suggest a different future for the now burgeoning sector.
“There was a tough moment in the industry, a kind of realisation that the future might just look back on offshore wind as an interesting niche that did a little bit of capacity but kind of capped out because it was too expensive,” Clark says.
The “game-changing” moments came through the step up in scale that developers could achieve, through bigger turbines and larger wind farms, and also through government support in the form of auctioned Contracts for Difference which allowed scale to go up and costs down.
Crucial, too, says Clark, was the industry coming together and asking: “Okay, how can we make the cost of the clean energy we produce lower?”
We’re not at the end of the journey yet
The shift that took place in offshore wind is best illustrated with Ørsted’s flagship offshore wind farms off England’s east coast.
“For me I would say the Hornsea One and Hornsea Two projects built by Ørsted mark two massively important milestones,” Clark says.
The two wind farms represent a “step change” in offshore wind the world over, Clark says. The first is currently the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, the furthest from shore and the first ever to have the capacity to produce over 1GW of power.
“That’s as much as a conventional power station,” Clark says of the site, which is serviced out of Grimsby, and which began producing in 2019.
Hornsea One won’t hold its title for long, though. Its sister, Hornsea Two will be 10 per cent more powerful. And not only that - it will deliver electricity at a significantly lower cost.
“For me, Hornsea Two was the breakthrough moment,” Clark says, “because as well as matching the scale of Hornsea One, this new world where you can build an offshore wind farm that generates as much electricity as a conventional power station, it won an auction of £57.50 MW/per hour so it was less than half the price per unit of electricity than projects in the auction just two years earlier.
“So it was a massive breakthrough in the cost of energy and I think that combination of scale and cost marked the moment that the industry came of age.”
But, he adds: “I think the key part is - we’re not at the end of the journey yet.”
Clark thinks the Prime Minister’s target is not only achievable but vital.
“We have to apply ourselves to it with a sense of urgency and purpose,” he says.
“It’s absolutely achievable with offshore wind. We’ve got a pipeline of projects at different stages of development across the industry around the country that taken together can deliver that target.”
He adds: “The risk is that projects get delayed or pushed back because of challenges during development. That might be grid connections, it might be planning permissions, it might be the practicalities of construction or it could be policy or regulatory changes around the sector.”
Coordinated design between offshore developers and the UK’s onshore infrastructure could be improved Clark says. Because of UK regulations, each developer is responsible for the transmission link to the mainland grid.
“I reckon we could probably get to the 2030 target, almost, under the current scheme,” he says.
But a new arrangement will be needed for 2050 targets and beyond.
The seabed and shorelines are remarkably busy places, brimming with wildlife habitat as well as an “extraordinarily broad range of stakeholders,” Clark says, from fishing to shipping and ferry routes.
We have to apply ourselves to it with a sense of urgency and purpose
Ørsted believes it’s important to listen to communities affected by the construction of wind farms - while also maintaining the urgency needed to tackle climate change.
“We all know that climate change is the dominant risk to much of the flora and fauna that we want to protect,” Clark says. “We’re in a situation where offshore wind is an absolute foundation stone to our approach to tackling climate change.”
He adds: “We need to look after the environment where we develop and we need to coexist with all the other users of the sea.”
Offshore wind also offers a prominent opportunity to boost a green economic recovery from the pandemic and to ensure a ‘Just Transition’ of skilled workers away from unsustainable industries.
The UK Government’s offshore wind sector deal envisages 27,000 jobs in offshore wind by 2030.
“Let’s invest in our futures, build the right things and take advantage of low interest rates to ramp up Britain’s offshore capacity,” Clark says.
“By cleaning up the electricity we put in the grid we can clean up electric transport and the way we heat our homes. This is the way and we need to take this opportunity.”
There are other innovations that Clark is excited about, which could work along side wind. Renewable hydrogen, for example, could be created with cleanly sourced electricity and used as fuel and feedstock.
“So you can imagine we could in future not only decarbonise our personal transport and the heating in our homes but actually green heavy transport and industry, areas currently difficult to clean up,” he says.
Focusing on the next decade in the story of offshore wind in Scotland, Clark is optimistic.
“The Crown Estate and Crown Estate Scotland have their part to play. We would always ask them to bring well-designed leasing rounds with the same sense of urgency and purpose. That’s been key to the UK’s success to date,” Clark says.
“Offshore wind has proved such an exciting story in the UK, and countries and governments around the world have seen that and want this low cost, quick-to-deliver clean energy.
“The UK in its new ambition of 40GW by 2030 - that will keep the UK at the forefront of the largest market in the world and that’s really important.”