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Deep sea wind turbines are coming to Britain’s coasts

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Winds far away from shore are stronger and more constant, but so far all wind farms are anchored to the coastal sea bed, deep sea wind turbines will revolutionise wind power.

 

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I’ve been talking about the development of a whole range of different and innovative floating deep sea wind turbines, as well as actual deep sea turbine concepts that make their coastal cousins look like toys, for years now. And now the UK is starting to deploy them. After spending most of his career as an engineer in the oil and gas industry, Dan Jackson has turned his skills to greener ventures. He plans to put hundreds of floating turbines up to 200km off the Scottish coast, making him one of the pioneers of new technology designed to harness the greater wind speeds further out at sea.

 

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The floating structures open up vast new areas offshore by overcoming the limitations of conventional turbines, which are fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m. They are more expensive to install but those higher costs are offset by the fact they can generate significantly more energy.

The wind resources out there are quite remarkable,” explained Jackson, founding director of private, England-based developer Cerulean Winds, which wants to develop a network of three connected floating wind farms across almost 1,000 sq km of the North Sea. The technology is key to the UK’s goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050.

 

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Industry executives believe it could account for more than half the 100 gigawatts target for offshore wind power generation by the middle of the century. Jackson is aiming to have the initial 600-megawatt phase of his project up and running by 2028, putting it on course to be one of Britain’s first large-scale, commercial floating offshore wind farms. The project was designed to supply clean electricity to North Sea oil and gas platforms but increasingly send excess power to the mainland as fossil fuel extraction declined, he said. Along with executives working on dozens of other floating offshore wind projects in British waters, Jackson will be closely watching two key events this year aimed at kick-starting the sector.

 

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A fresh round of government subsidy contracts is expected to attract bids from several pilot schemes, which would join the two small demonstrator projects already operational off Scotland. Separately, the Crown Estate, which manages the seabed off England, Northern Ireland and Wales, is hoping to attract bids in the first commercial-scale floating wind auction in the Celtic Sea, off south-west England.

“Floating offshore wind is a new frontier,” said its chief executive Dan Labbad. So far 29 floating projects have secured seabed leasing deals out of 51 in the pipeline with a combined capacity of 37GW, according to trade group RenewableUK. The vast majority of those are in Scotland, a global hub for the offshore wind industry, with most at a very early stage.

At present, the UK has just two small floating wind pilot projects operational with a combined capacity of 80MW, compared with the 14GW from traditional “fixed bottom” wind turbines. But the two pilots represent more than a third of the installed global capacity from floating turbines, underlining how Britain has exploited its access to the North Sea to become a pioneer in the offshore wind industry. “It’s one of the best wind corridors in the world,” Jackson explained.

 

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One of those pilots, Hywind, was built by Equinor, Norway’s state-controlled energy company, off Peterhead in Scotland and became the world’s first floating offshore wind farm to generate power in 2017.  The company has hailed it a success with a capacity factor (a widely used metric calculating electricity generators’ output as a proportion of theoretical maximum output) of 54 per cent over its first five years, ahead of the average capacity factor for offshore wind in Europe of 49 per cent This has convinced Equinor to explore further projects around Britain and elsewhere, including South Korea and the US.

“There also isn’t much acreage left for fixed-bottom. Floating will be the new era,” said Halfdan Brustad, vice-president for UK renewables at Equinor, who led the Hywind project. Technology proving for floating projects is taking place alongside an increase in turbine size, which means each turbine can generate more power, improving the financial case for floating projects. But the UK faces several hurdles to make the leap from test-bed to commercial powerhouse in floating wind. Tim Pick, the government’s offshore wind industry champion, warned in a report in April that getting more offshore projects into operation in the UK had become “more rather than less difficult”, partly due to lengthy planning processes and slow grid connections.  Ministers have taken some steps to address those issues in recent months. Meanwhile, the Crown Estate’s upcoming leasing round will offer floating offshore wind developers a 50 per cent discount on their option fees if their projects are delayed in obtaining planning approval or other consents.

 

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“We’re trying to de-risk this as much as possible for developers,” said Labbad. “It’s essential that we maintain the UK’s position at the forefront globally in this area.” Pick has also warned that more needs to be done to encourage ports to invest so they can handle and store the large pieces of equipment required for floating offshore wind.

“Ports need to be able to invest as soon as possible and ahead of floating wind projects being ready to award contracts,” Pick said last month. “It’s not clear that the right policy measures are there to get them comfortable with that.”

The next auction for government subsidy contracts must include some floating wind, said Ryanne Burges, director for offshore and Ireland at EDF Renewables UK and Ireland, whose 58MW Blyth 2 project is expected to be among the bidders.

 

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If we don’t get these sites off the ground now, there will be a massive walk back in terms of investor confidence and supply chain confidence in the UK,” she warned While his project is not yet ready to bid, Jackson said he had been encouraged by the decision by ministers to increase the support on offer after the 2023 auction failed to attract any bids from offshore wind farm developers. “The government . . . [has] recognised there needs to be a pathway to making [the contracts] work for floating. The changes are terrific for both sides. It means the UK is attractive for floating wind.”

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