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UK awards big offshore wind-power concessions

The UK's ambitious offshore wind-power programme – the world's largest – has moved into a new phase with the selection of firms to build some 30 gigawatts (GW) of capacity by 2020. Now there just remains the small task of getting the job done

Round 3 of the programme, run by the UK Crown Estate, covers the addition of around 6,400 additional turbines, with a generating capacity of up to 32 GW in nine UK coastal zones, adding to the 8 GW allocated in previous rounds. If these goals were met, then wind would meet around 60% of the UK's 2020 renewable energy target.

The biggest licence was won by a group including SSE Renewables, RWE npower Renewables, Statoil and Statkraft, which could produce up to 9 GW in the Dogger Bank zone, 100 km out into the North Sea. Scottish Power Renewables and Vattenfall Vindkraft have a licence to provide up to 7.2 GW in the second-largest zone, Norfolk Bank, again in the North Sea. Centrica, E.On and RWE are among a number of other firms participating in licences scattered around UK coastal regions.

Prime minister Gordon Brown described the awards, announced in early January, as a boon for the UK economy. "This new round of licences provides a substantial new platform for investing in UK industrial capacity. The offshore wind industry is at the heart of the UK economy's shift to low carbon and could be worth £75bn ($122bn) and support up to 70,000 jobs by 2020," he said.

However, some observers remain to be convinced that a country whose only commercial wind turbine manufacturing plant – Vestas' Isle of White facility – shut last year can rise to the challenge. In engineering terms, building this extra capacity has been likened by the Carbon Trust, an independent government-advisory body, to building eight channel tunnels in 10 years. The proposed wind farms are bigger, further from shore and in deeper, stormier waters than has been the case to date – all factors that push up costs.

Meanwhile, delays, such as those that initially dogged the world's biggest offshore wind farm to date – the 1 GW London Array project, in the Thames Estuary near the UK capital – show funding has been in short supply. And with existing subsidies for offshore wind only in place until 2014, project consortia will be keen for rapid government reassurance that support will be there in the longer term. However, they will have to wait for that until after the UK general election – to be held by June – which could bring the opposition Conservative party to power, if opinion polls are proved right. While being broadly supportive, the Conservatives have yet to unveil many details of their renewable-energy policy.

However, there are hopes that costs will be kept in check by the development of cheaper technologies as the sector becomes more mature. "We estimate that it is possible, through good siting and technological advances, to reduce the cost of deployment for Round 3 by as much as 40% [from the government's estimate] over the coming decade," says Tom Delay, the Carbon Trust's chief executive.

Capital-expenditure savings could be made through technological improvements, including altered seabed foundation design, the development of floating foundations, more efficient electricity-transmissions systems and careful positioning of turbines to avoid placing one behind another, where wind flow is less. Many of these big offshore farms will use 5 megawatt (MW) turbines – rather than the existing 2.5-3.0 MW ones generally used now – which will help with economies of scale.

There are also signs that manufacturers are starting to develop plans for facilities in the UK, probably in northeast England, where access to many of the new wind farms and other potential markets and suppliers across the North Sea is relatively easy. GE and Siemens are both believed to eyeing up possibilities in the region, while Clipper and Mitsubishi are expanding their collaboration with the state-backed New and Renewable Energy Centre to develop the next generation of larger turbine blades at its facility in Blyth, northeast England.

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