Last reviewed 16 November 2020

New UK offshore wind industry funding — part of a 10-point sustainable recovery plan due before Christmas — could help to create a new green supply chain, skills and job opportunities if the steps are substantial rather than conference season hot air. Jon Herbert reports.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a £160 million boost to help the UK’s high-performing offshore wind industry power every UK home within a decade has been welcomed, albeit with some caveats and scepticism.

Many of the ambitious Build Back Green proposals “unveiled” at October’s virtual Conservative Party’s annual 2020 conference were first seen in its November 2019 pre-election pledges.

However, the updated goal is to increase UK offshore wind power capacity from 30GW to 40GW by 2030, create 60,000 jobs, and stimulate a post-pandemic green economic recovery that also anticipates climate change.

Even so, Mr Johnson’s promise to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind power” did raise some eyebrows following his 2013 observation that wind power couldn’t “pull the skin off a rice pudding”.

Successes and challenges

Times change. Britain now has notable big wins. The world’s largest offshore wind farm is currently Cumbria’s huge Walney Extension, a title that will soon pass to the 6GW capacity Hornsea One project 120km off Yorkshire’s coast.

But major hurdles exist too, including the size of the total investment required — by one estimate some £50 billion — and the need for swifter government processing of seabed licences and contracts.

However, a third challenge is the need to procure more products and services domestically rather than the present practice of overseas operators sourcing largely from their own home countries.

Urgent new priorities

The increasingly cost-effective UK wind industry — offshore and onshore — is now seen as central to the UK meeting its 2050 net-zero emissions commitment, becoming a clean power world leader and showing a clean pair of green heels as co-host of the 2021 global COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Tougher still, in December the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will publish its recommendation on the level of the Sixth Carbon Budget, with robust advice for ministers about the volume of greenhouse gases that the UK can emit legally from 2033 to 2037.

Wind power is also just part of a wider green recovery strategy that could include both large and small-scale modular nuclear power plants, hydrogen and illusive carbon capture technologies, but also more initiatives on the home front than the £3 billion so far committed for home insulation.

Building on a push for wind, Deputy Chair of the CCC, Lady Brown of Cambridge, noted that, “If we’re to reach net zero UK emissions by 2050, we’ll need to see similarly bold commitments to cut emissions from our buildings, industry, transport and land.”

The PM’s pump-primer funding should help to upgrade ports, factories and transport links for the next generation of turbines manufacturing on Teesside, the Humber, in Scotland and in Wales.

However, as with most sophisticated supply chains, both large companies and feisty SMEs will have a key role in providing low-carbon products and services, and taking technical innovations to market.

High as a skyscraper

It may be small consolation for an increasingly stormy North Atlantic island to boast of being one of the world’s windiest places — Storm Alex made 3 October the UK’s wettest day since records began in 1891.

After an uncertain start, offshore wind power costs have dropped dramatically over recent years based on new technology and larger turbines that capture more and faster winds. Productions costs have dropped so much that the unprecedented idea of “negative subsidies” has been raised whereby money flows back to government coffers.

As an example of size, in May, Siemens Gamesa unveiled at 14 MW the largest wind turbine to date with a 222m rotor diameter almost as high as San Francisco’s the Golden Gate Bridge (227m). Its nacelle — connecting turbine blades to the tower via a gearbox, generator and slewing gear — alone will weigh 500 tons. MHI Vestas Offshore Wind A/S, with UK bases, is also planning giant machines.

However, fresh records could be set by the world’s largest planned offshore wind farm, the 3.6GW Dogger Bank project designed to provide 5% of UK electricity from 2026; its 190 13 MW turbines should generate enough power in each sweep to power a typical UK home for more than two days.

New designs also cut costs by using less primary and secondary attached steel, new foundation systems and resins to provide erosion protection in marine waters rather than sacrificial anodes. Innovations include the introduction of floating turbines that can hold their position in deep waters.

However, as with the sophisticated oil and gas industry supply chain, smaller companies also tap into key logistics opportunities, from boat provision to marine coordination and personnel certification.

Engineering, financial and employment hurdles

To meet the 2030 engineering challenge, one new high capacity turbine will have to be installed on average on every working day in often turbulent metocean weather and wave conditions.

Once in place, they must be operated, maintained and systematically upgraded to underpin or extend their working life in the long O&M phase, with health and safety key factors.

From a financial perspective, although there is said to be “no shortage of capital or investment opportunities in offshore wind”, the Government plans to hold a major contract auction in spring 2021 — its first for four years that will also include solar and onshore wind power.

Despite the government’s resistance to onshore wind developments in recent years, onshore wind accounted for 20% of the circa 45% of UK electricity generated by renewables up to June 2020.

According to RenewablesUK, the auction could raise more than £20 billion and create 12,000 jobs, primarily in construction. Contracts for Difference (CfD) may not be a great economic incentive but does offer investors a stable revenue for offshore wind energy sales.

From an employment perspective, there is concern that up to 60% of the materials and services must come from within the UK rather than overseas. Sue Ferns of the trade union Prospect believes that for this to happen there needs to be a “credible plan for a functional UK supply chain”.

Proof of the rice pudding

According to Dieter Helm, Economic Policy Professor at the University of Oxford, “The day of reckoning on energy and energy policy is fast approaching”.

His point is that to meet its 2050 targets, the UK which has already closed down its coal industry and has an ageing nuclear power station fleet, needs to pull a new cat out of the bag if it is to have a reasonable chance of both meeting its sixth carbon budget and cutting the ice at COP26.

Offshore wind and accompanying carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which are needed to remove and sequestrate CO2 from fossil-fuel use, are attractive options, he says, because “the shallow, windy North Sea” is a world-beating location that is “also littered with empty oil and gasfields and pipelines, which offers an inherent infrastructure to help pioneer CCS”.

Before Christmas

The 10 recovery plan gaps the Government may want to fill this year could include its Energy White Paper originally due in mid-2019, a full Buildings Strategy, more detailed low-carbon transport plans, an updated National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), the delayed Resources and Waste Strategy and the final version of the Environment Bill.