Offshore wind power playing important role but still needs long-term policy support from government

The potential for using offshore wind power in Europe is significant and increasingly it is being exploited. Greg Bruno writes on The National website from the UAE about the progress being made but the words of caution from many of the largest energy companies that “commitment is only possible with a stable, long-term market for renewables in Europe.” As the EU starts to decide on new sustainable energy objectives for 2030, let’s hope that decision-makers are listening.


The winds are changing in the renewable-energy debate

Twenty nautical miles (37 kilometres) off the coast of North Norfolk in England, an ambitious Masdar-funded wind farm is nearing its final phase of development. Over the next few weeks the first of 67 turbines will rise from the seabed, forming a vast array of swirling blades that, when fully operational by the end of the year, will generate enough energy to power 410,000 homes in the United Kingdom.

“Sitting in the boat underneath them, they are impressive and they are huge installations,” Rune Rønvik, operations manager for the Dudgeon Offshore Wind Farm, says of this type of offshore station. “It’s amazing to see them there in real life, after working on them and planning.”

Masdar’s cooperative effort in the southern North Sea – the energy innovator owns a 35-per cent stake in Dudgeon, and is partnering with two Norwegian energy companies, Statkraft and Mr Rønvik’s employer, Statoil – comes as offshore wind is reaching its zenith. With costs down and efficiencies up, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests with additional private and governmental support offshore wind could soon become one of the best ways to power a warming planet.

But there are also powerful currents pushing in the opposite direction. And without vision and foresight, industry insiders say, the progress that offshore wind has made could go slack. Some of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses have been the slowest to embrace the zero-carbon power of offshore gusts. In mid-December, the United States’ first offshore wind farm, the tiny five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, spun to life off the coast of Rhode Island. Even before it was switched on, the anti-wind punditry was puffing its opposition. Maryland finance professor Dan Ervin, writing in the influential The Hill newspaper, chastised lawmakers for seeing offshore wind, which is widely used in the US, as an energy panacea. Like other opponents, he argued that only nuclear offers the green-energy solution America needs.

Perhaps he’s correct – president-elect Donald Trump seems to think so, too – but why offshore wind must come at the expense of nuclear is far from clear. The European Union relies on both forms of power production to meet energy needs.EU coastal states account for 91 per cent of the world’s installed offshore wind capacity. At the same time, the EU generates 27 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear plants. Critics say the slow pace of acceptance of offshore wind in the US could be due to federal subsidies that the American government provides for fossil-fuel generation.

China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is also struggling to follow Europe’s offshore wind lead. For now, Beijing is shelving its offshore targets as energy officials oversee a resurgence of coal, a move born more of convenience than prudence.

Projects like Masdar’s in the North Sea offer a counter-narrative that much of Europe has embraced: with continued funding, support and technological innovation, offshore wind might just be the world’s green-power saviour. As the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) notes, with the right policies in place average electricity costs for offshore wind could dip as much as 35 per cent by 2025.

To get there, though, offshore wind still needs fresh thinking, as well as political and governmental support. In a joint pledge made earlier this year, Europe’s 11 largest energy companies vowed to work together to make offshore wind as competitive as gas and coal. Cognisant that government subsidies won’t last forever, the energy giants say that offshore wind can achieve costs below €80 (Dh310) per megawatt hour, making it “fully competitive” with “new conventional power generation”.

The 11 companies said in a statement to EU policymakers: “This commitment is only possible with a stable, long-term market for renewables in Europe.”

Steve Sawyer, general secretary of the Global Wind Energy Council, says that among the most important components of this commitment are power-purchase agreements, deals which guarantee commercially viable pricing for wind turbine investors. “If they have a guaranteed price for the electricity for a period of time – 10, 15 or 20 years generally – then they are good long-term investments,” he says.

And when investors are happy, innovation follows. One example of promising new technology, Sawyer says, is the pioneering use of Doppler radar for modelling the wind flow through an entire offshore wind farm, which helps optimise the siting and operations to maximise energy yield. Another exciting development is the rapid advance of floating offshore turbines. Such progress might not be possible if government support dried up.

Recent European auction rounds for new projects would seem to support the industry’s optimism. The planned Danish Kriegers Flak offshore wind farm in the Baltic Sea, for instance, was awarded to the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall in November. At €49.90 per mega­watt/hour, it was the lowest winning bid ever for an offshore wind project.

Back in North Norfolk, Mr Rønvik says that with more support from governments and investors such as Masdar, offshore wind could soon stand on its own.

“The cost of offshore wind is in a dramatic way, down,” he said. “We’re talking about giant leaps in terms of making this an efficient solution. It is an interesting thing that is taking place and these are some of the latest developments, perhaps so fresh that we haven’t really digested them.”

From water level the towers that are set to rise near North Norfolk are mammoth, jaw-dropping structures – one-fifth the size of the Burj Khalifa, and as tall as London’s Gherkin tower. With careful planning, governments and investors can do their part to ensure that on future offshore projects, the winds remain as strong as these machines are impressive.

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