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The South West should be at the forefront of the floating offshore wind energy industry, urges Steve

A year ago this month, the world’s first commercial floating offshore wind farm was officially opened. Five giant turbines tethered to the seabed 15 miles off the Aberdeenshire coast can generate enough power for around 20,000 homes.

Each turbine rises 175m from the surface of the sea to blade tip. Their foundations extend another 78m underwater, anchored by chains weighing 1,200 tonnes. The wind farm is located in water depths of up to 129m but its majority owner, Norwegian energy giant Equinor, believes it could deploy in depths of 800 metres.

That’s hugely significant because it is estimated that up to 80% of world’s potential offshore wind sites are located in waters more than 60m deep, which is the limit for conventional offshore wind turbines that are fixed to the seabed.

The development of floating offshore wind technology opens up vast areas of ocean with excellent wind resources. Because turbines can be sited far offshore and won’t be visible from land, we avoid the aesthetic issues that have blighted onshore wind planning applications.

Floating platforms can accommodate the largest of wind turbines which means more generating capacity, and they can be constructed in sheltered waters and towed to site, significantly reducing offshore construction costs. The industry believes that floating offshore wind can be cost competitive with fixed offshore wind by 2031, and thereafter contribute at least 10GW of offshore wind capacity by 2050.

The deeper waters where floating offshore wind turbines can be deployed are in the South West, Wales, northern parts of the North Sea and Scotland.  So it represents a huge opportunity for the Westcountry. In the same way that the fixed offshore wind industry has brought jobs and transformed communities on the East coast of England, floating wind could have a similar transformational economic effect here.

And this isn’t pie in the sky stuff. The UK already leads the world in both installed and planned offshore wind projects, with 36% of the global market at the end of last year. There are now more than 1,800 fixed offshore wind turbines installed in UK waters, with a generating capacity of 7.2GW, enough for six million homes.

The Government’s target is to achieve 30GW of offshore wind by 2030 as the UK strives to meet its obligations of the 2015 Paris Agreement, to reduce carbon emissions and transition to a low carbon economy. Indeed, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report suggests that we need to go further and faster, limiting global warming to 1.5oC, which could occur as soon as 2030 on current temperature trajectories. The initiative by Ministers to consider a ‘roadmap to a net-zero economy’ announced recently is therefore extremely welcome.

The UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy also recognises the jobs and industrial benefits of offshore wind and singles it out as a sector where the UK has world-leading expertise and technology. Offshore wind also features prominently in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, especially when it comes to export potential. The world market for offshore wind is estimated to reach £30 billion by 2030 and £55 billion by 2050.

But within the overall offshore wind sector, the nascent floating offshore wind industry is still at an early stage and represents a tiny fraction of the overall offshore wind deployment. So, if the UK is to realise the potential that this new technology represents, a number of things have to happen.

First and foremost, policy support is essential to provide private sector confidence to invest, so some form of transitional pump-priming revenue support will be needed, as was the case with fixed offshore wind.  This in turn can help drive private investment in research and development to reduce the costs of deployment and stimulate deployment at scale, allowing us to ‘learn by doing’ offshore, and quickly reduces costs to the consumer.

Government transitional revenue support for fixed offshore wind has driven just such a virtuous circle - the cost of electricity generated from new offshore wind projects has fallen by 50% in recent years, and it is now accepted as one of the cheapest forms of electrical generation. All new offshore wind farms will be subsidy free.

With the right support, there is no reason why floating wind cannot achieve similar or even greater economies of scale, and even lower prices than fixed offshore wind. And potentially more quickly, given that that we can learn from our fixed offshore wind experience, and also leverage Britain’s world-leading skills in tidal and wave energy.

The South West is an ideal geographical location to help pioneer a British floating wind industry, thanks to three key advantages. It is already home to Wave Hub, the world’s largest consented offshore renewables site, for which consent is currently being sought for floating offshore wind.

We are, with Scotland, one of the world’s two leading wave and tidal energy regions, with a suite of research, development, and private sector expertise in offshore renewables that is immediately portable into floating offshore wind.

And we have the offshore wind resource, water depth, sea space, capabilities, skill and port infrastructure that could support the commercial deployment of floating wind farms by 2030, building a strong base for local delivery, and for broader export to the rest of the UK and internationally.

To leverage this potential, the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) recently drew together leading offshore renewable experts from across the region and beyond to look at how we can develop the industry here in the South West.

The LEP, which exists to drive economic growth and the creation of high quality jobs in the region, has already earmarked energy as a key sector with local growth potential in its ‘10 Opportunities’ investment prospectus, and recently announced a £2 million investment to bring low carbon technologies to the Isles of Scilly.

Floating offshore wind will be one of our flagship local energy initiatives as we develop our local Industrial Strategy, and the LEP is now engaging directly with Government to explore how the South West can help the Britain pioneer a floating offshore wind revolution, and benefit from the clean subsidy-free renewable power, regional jobs and export benefits that this exciting technology offers.

Steve Jermy is an offshore renewables professional and Board member of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP.