Turbulent times

It is a pivotal moment in time for offshore wind.  The targets are set, the technology largely proven, so it's now time to deliver and the industry is ready to meet that challenge.

If the UK is to meet tough targets for renewable energy then there is no doubt that wind - and particularly offshore wind - will have to bear a huge share of the burden.

But it will be no breeze. Critics of offshore energy are vocal, and commentary is often sceptical and hostile, not to mention the mere practicalities of setting up systems in the most unforgiving of environments.

Time magazine's article 'High costs, high stakes in the North Sea', published in September 1975, talks of the early days of the oil and gas industry: "Swept by waves of up to 90ft high and wind gusts of hurricane velocity, Europe's North Sea is one of the world's most inhospitable places. It has also been terribly unforgiving of mistakes. Development costs paced by outlays for labour and expensive equipment have in many cases doubled or even tripled in the last two years. Costs have reached $35bn in Britain and Norway alone or $11bn more than the US spent to land a man on the Moon."

It goes on: "There is little doubt among oilmen now that the North Sea will pay off for its biggest gamblers, but just how much remains to be seen. For whatever oil it has left to export Britain should find their ready market in Western Europe. About one-fifth of Europe's energy may eventually come from the North Sea."

Offshore wind has been touted as the North Sea Oil of the 21st century, but there are more parallels than just those described in this article. Like the early 1970s the global economy is in choppy waters, we face seemingly inextirpable rises in the price of oil and costs in the renewable energy industry are on the rise too. Total investment in offshore wind, if we are to meet the 2020 target, will not be $11bn or $35bn, but nearer £60bn.

"We are at the forefront of an energy revolution that is about to transform the way in which we deliver electricity in this country," Adam Bruce, chairman of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), says. "A revolution that will deliver energy to this generation, and the next, and the next. One that is indigenous and secure, and where the fuel is free."

Challenges to delivery

Later this year the UK will become the world's largest generator of offshore wind energy. The renewables energy sector now has a clear policy objective - to deliver 15 per cent of all of our energy from renewables by 2020, and to do so with bulk electricity bearing the lion's share. Up to 40 per cent of the UK's electricity will have to come from renewables 12 years from now and the largest portion will come from offshore winds.

"To get there we need a streamlined development process," Bruce says. "The UK government through the planning and energy bills is creating an environment encouraging that. The Crown Estate is alive to the challenge to move faster and the announcement on round three of offshore wind development is a huge step in that direction.

"Offshore wind must be the key strategic driver for the government's energy policy over the next decade. The scale of the investment needed in Britain's infrastructure over the next decade and longer means that all [energy] technologies will be facing significant challenges to delivery to provide us with the capacity that we need. It is not a question of 'renewables or', but 'renewables and'.

"There must be compromise from other sea users and other marine interests. There will be changes to shipping lanes, military and commercial radar will have to recognise thousands of turbines and our colleagues in the oil and gas sector will need to work constructively with their new neighbours."

It is not just the work on the windfarms themselves that is urgently required but to fully develop that resource we need an onshore grid backbone that is fit to deliver a generation that will come to market from the very north of Scotland to the waters of the Channel and the Celtic Sea to the south. According to Bruce there can be no more ten-year planning processes for new grids, no more convoluted economic regulations that militate against new grade development, no more wavering on whether we need onshore upgrades at all. The answer, he says, is that we do.

"The new grid needed for 2020 is a strategic, economic highway and it should be built now. At a time of rising input costs we must be more vocal about the local long term economic benefits of wind."

Bruce calls for a unified battle to supply renewables, but when it comes to funding he takes a stance that may find little support among purveyors of solar or marine technologies. He agrees that the Renewable Obligation (RO) needs to be extended to provide the support for the industry through to 2020, but he says, "we must learn how to articulate that support is not an end in itself. We are not an industrial dinosaur in need of government intervention. We are a new industry that will in time through lower energy costs and lower electricity bills repay this investment from our consumers.

"The RO has delivered, we have delivered, 10GW of projects into planning, driven by our obligation to provide renewable energy. Arguing whether another mechanism, a tariff, might have done more is an academic exercise and should remain as such. And the RO, extended out beyond 2027 and review it every five years. Now is not the time to be toying with other forms of support, no matter how attractive they may seem to solo developers in Germany. 

"The UK's energy revolution is at hand. Developing our marine renewables will give us a secure, carbon-free and future-proof source of energy where the energy is free and abundant. What better incentive could there be?"

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