Can offshore wind propel the UK to 2030?

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Bronwyn Sutton
Director of wind advisory within renewables

The UK Prime Minister has set a vision to generate enough electricity from offshore wind to power every home in the UK by 2030. Wood’s renewables experts look at the cross-sector learnings and the development life cycle for these projects to ask what needs to change if the UK is going to hit the target.

This week Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, set out his vision for a post-COVID and post-Brexit Britain. It included an aspiration that the UK should be to offshore wind power what Saudi Arabia is to oil.

There is one notable exception: where Saudi exports much of its natural resource, within a decade Boris wants UK wind to generate enough electricity to power every home in the country.

The comparison between offshore wind and oil and gas is more than just levels of ambition  

Saudi Arabia and oil and gas are almost synonymous, due to the abundance of natural hydrocarbon resource and economic strength that they have built from it. Drawing the comparison, the PM has obviously set a benchmark for his ambition. However, aside from the scale of ambition, there are other parallels between offshore wind and oil and gas that will help to deliver the PM’s goal.

It may feel like there is an abundance of wind in the UK, however, to meet this target, offshore wind will have to venture into more challenging locations that are further from shore, in deeper water and with more powerful wind and wave conditions. For decades the oil and gas industry has been propelled by its drive and ingenuity to operate safely in exactly these conditions, and this expertise can be combined with that from the offshore wind sector to create a winning package which benefits the UK.

As a world leader in offshore wind, the UK is already driving innovation in fixed turbines, emerging technology in floating wind, as well as the supporting infrastructure, transmission and distribution networks and turbine fabrication needs. Early efforts have helped reduce offshore wind costs and accelerated innovation will be needed to meet the target, drive down costs faster and create more jobs in the UK.

In floating wind, many of the competencies are a stronger match for the existing oil and gas supply chain than the existing wind supply chain. Coupled with the decline in oil demand due to the pandemic and the resultant volatility in commodity markets we are seeing resources, specialist skills and technical expertise become available.

As the power grid becomes more loaded, another market which will become increasingly important for offshore wind power is the production of hydrogen through wind powered electrolysis. Alongside offshore wind power generation, a British green hydrogen sector could be a major contributor to the economy and to our net-zero targets.

It is not just oil and gas know-how that presents an opportunity for offshore wind. Offshore oil and gas production assets are also being repurposed and modified to facilitate green energy as it moves into these remoter locations.

This is perfect timing therefore for a cross-sectoral approach that learns, benefits, leverages oil and gas experience and smooths the transition to a cleaner global energy model. Companies which already operate in multiple sectors will be particularly important in supporting this transition and bringing diverse expertise.

Offshore wind sites and planning cycles need commitment to accelerate development

Yet, the optimism and opportunism need to be balanced with some pragmatism and recognition of the mountain to climb. Saudi Arabia has developed a vast and advanced oil and gas industry, become one of, if not the world’s largest producer and advanced its economy on the back of it, in a duration of more than half a century.Boris Johnson has given the UK a decade for offshore wind…

Any detected skepticism is not about naysaying; we welcome the ambition and undoubtable benefits success would bring. But we need to look at the realities of offshore wind development in 2020, and we at Wood are very familiar in this space from our work over the last couple of decades.

The offshore wind life cycle commences with site selection, current bidding rounds present welcome opportunity as long as they maintain momentum. Once a site is identified and secured, progressing to submission of a development consent application is at best around two and a half years, including the required two years of offshore bird surveys for the environmental impact assessment.

Once submitted, developers need to factor in around 18 months for determination of the application (depending on the consenting regime) before being awarded a development consent. We are currently working on a high-profile UK offshore wind farm and whilst its bird surveys started in summer 2019, submission of the consent application is planned for the second half of 2021 to hopefully gain consent early 2023.

Energy isn’t the only contribution offshore wind can make to the UK, jobs and GDP needs to be supported

Returning to the Saudi Arabia theme, various government schemes there have focused in recent years on capturing the value of oil and gas in the local economy, creating new jobs, supporting local manufacturing, localising skills and technology and growing exports.

In the past decade, there’s been significant renewable energy development in the UK but much of the investment has gone overseas. High-value components including turbines and foundations are being imported from mainland Europe and Asia-Pacific.

New opportunities created by the government’s ambition and investment need to drive in-country benefit and capture economic value locally to be truly sustainable.

The scale of the challenge makes it imperative that the timeline on the current seabed lease rounds are met, and new sites brought forward. We will also need to see a significant acceleration in the consenting and development timeline for these projects. The opportunity to unlock it may lie in learnings from the oil and gas market.

As experts in energy, we are thrilled to hear of the UK government’s great ambition for offshore wind - we are ready to partner to achieve a more sustainable future.

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