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Why Britain is a world leader in offshore wind energy

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Ope turn with “sg 8.0-167 d.d»The turbine generates enough electricity to run a British home day and night. sg stands for Siemens Gamesa, a subsidiary of the German industrial giant that manufactures machinery in Halle. 8.0 is the maximum turbine power in megawatts (MW). 167 is the diameter of its rotor in meters: it covers a circle whose area is equivalent to about three football fields. I d.d stands for direct drive, a technology for generating electricity without heavy gears that wear out. At Hornsea 2, a wind farm located off the Yorkshire coast, 165 of these huge turbines form a steel field that stretches further than the eye can see. Hornsea 2, which became fully operational in August, is now the largest wind farm in the world. When the wind really blows, it can power 1.4 million homes.

Development of it offshore wind energy is one of the UK’s greatest infrastructure successes. The first farms, installed in the early 2000s, were little more than a cottage industry, repurposing tiny offshore turbines for the sea with an output of just two megawatts. Since then, the sector has boomed. By 2010, there were 1.3 gigawatts (gw) of wind energy in British waters. Today there are 14 of themgw. By 2021, when it was overtaken by China (see chart), Britain had installed more offshore wind capacity than any other country in the world. About 36% of Britain’s electricity currently comes from wind, most of which is offshore. Duncan Clarke, boss of Orsted’s UK unit, which developed Hornsea 2, says offshore wind could produce half of the UK’s electricity by 2030. “What has happened is almost beyond all expectations,” he says. In the process, the price plummeted. In 2015, new offshore wind cost £120 ($155) per megawatt hour; today it costs well under £40.

Britain’s success in wind energy is partly down to government policy. Contracts for the construction and operation of wind farms have strict deadlines (and the risk of cancellation if they are not met). The contracts are offered through a competitive auction process, which has helped keep prices down. Geography also plays a big role. The UK coastline runs along the west coast of the North Sea, one of the windiest places on earth. It is relatively shallow, which facilitates the construction of wind farms. All this has attracted a host of companies that supply services and equipment that developers can turn to to help build farms in British waters. “This is one of the best places in the world to build offshore wind,” says Søren Lassen, head of offshore wind research at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

Not everything was simple. The government’s drive to move as much industry as possible to British soil met with mixed success. A turbine plant that General Electric planned to build in Teesside has failed “due to a lack of scale”, the firm says. Industry insiders said the developer he was supplying was unable to secure enough contracts. It now supplies turbines for British wind farms from France. There are no companies in the UK yet that manufacture and install monopoles, the huge piles of steel rebar and concrete that anchor a turbine tower to the seabed, although a South Korean company, the sea, has just started building a £400m factory on Teesside. Orsted has signed a contract with the firm to build the next wind farm, Hornsea 3. It will produce twice as much electricity as Hornsea 2.

There is even more growth ahead. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, promised to build 50gw of offshore wind by 2030. In his autumn statement on 17 November, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, repeatedly referred to offshore wind as a means of ending dependence on fossil fuels. Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party, promised more in his speech to the Confederation of British Industry on 22 November. Growth will occur at the expense of new farms. North of Hornsea, a consortium is building a huge wind farm at Dogger Bank. Off the coast of Scotland, Berwick Bank, the largest of a series of huge wind farms, will produce more electricity than Hinkley Point C, Britain’s newest nuclear power station. There will be some farms which floatsrather than anchored to the seabed, a new technology that will allow even more electricity to be generated off the UK coast.

In the short term, this is the biggest obstacle to Britain’s 50th birthdaygw The goal is offshore wind success elsewhere: competition for parts and skills is growing. And lean supply chains, the result of fierce price competition driven by Britain’s contract auction scheme, can also cause delays. “Gone are the days when the most important thing was to reduce the cost of production by 50p. Now we need the speed of deployment,” says Mr Clarke.

The UK electricity grid must also keep up, building substations and transformers along the east coast. The existing grid infrastructure was built to serve coal-fired power plants, which were typically built near sources of cooling water. While most of the planned future wind farms have already secured their grid connection slots, some have not yet. This could be a slow process that the government could speed up by streamlining the planning process and reforming grid designs designed for a fossil-fueled world. All offshore wind power must eventually flow onshore through one of 15 major onshore interconnections with their own dedicated offshore grids. Fossil fuel energy, on the other hand, was connected from plant to plant. The government could also encourage businesses that are not currently running on electricity, such as transport, heat and heavy industry, to make the switch. In the longer term, the offshore wind industry will face a wall of stagnant demand unless these large chunks of economic activity are electrified.

The rewards will exceed large volumes of clean electricity. Around 20,000 people work in offshore wind in Britain, many of them in maintenance. The sector could employ more than 61,000 workers by 2030, according to the Offshore Wind Energy Council. Many of these jobs will be in places like Grimsby, Hull and Teesside where the government wants to stimulate the economy. To get there, the government needs to stay the course and create a stable environment for more companies to set up business in Britain.

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