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Offshore wind is the 21st century's answer to the North Sea oil boom

Faced with continued cuts in public funding for local authority highways and maintenance and the continued slowdown in investment across public and private infrastructure, where should civil engineers turn to build their careers?

The answer is surely clear – offshore wind power. The North Sea Oil boom for the 21st century. Having sowed the seeds of its ambition with the Rounds One and Two developments, Crown Estates is now well into its stride with Round Three. Delivering 48GW of offshore renewable power to the grid by 2020 is the goal.

And with plans to see around £150bn of private money invested over the next decade, bringing with it fantastic new technical challenges and a step change in approach to the delivery of at-scale renewable power, is there really any engineer in the UK not excited at the prospect?

Engineering innovation will be vital to overcome the not insignificant challenges; building around 10,000 turbines, each around 200m tall, in water up to 60m deep and up to 200km offshore, then get the power back to shore 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The challenge will be to design and construct robust, reliable machines designed specifically for this offshore environment, maximise the benefits of the programme’s scale and so reduce the current high price of harnessing this natural resource.

It is no secret that, right now, offshore wind tops the generating cost league, both in terms of capital and operating costs.

“Just like the North Sea Oil boom in the 1970s, civil engineers should recognise this as a game changing career opportunity”

Of course, some in the profession insist that the high price of offshore wind and its vulnerability to periods of calm mean this programme should be abandoned in favour of a massive push for nuclear.

I disagree. While nuclear certainly has a place in the energy mix alongside coal and gas, offshore wind cannot be ruled out as a vital renewable source.

Because while nuclear is perhaps cheaper, it isn’t the cheapest and it isn’t renewable. And we haven’t yet resolved issues around waste disposal and security of uranium supply. Certainly it is cheaper to burn gas or burn coal. But that is surely precisely why we now have such a big global climate change problem to deal with.

Despite the fact that, according to new government figures this week, UK CO² emissions fell in 2009, we still have a huge way to go if we are to meet our legally binding targets of delivering 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and reducing emissions by 80% by 2050.

Offshore wind gives us an opportunity to hit these targets and along the way develop new technologies and a whole new industry and supply chain based in the UK from which to launch around the world.

And just like the North Sea Oil boom in the 1970s, civil engineers should recognise this as a game changing career opportunity. Don’t miss the boat.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Mr. Oliver,
    Please take this as an open letter from me which I will copy to you for possible inclusion - unedited I hope, in the NCE Magazine.

    Despite many efforts over the last 2-3 years by many very experienced professional engineers, the NCE Magazine, and the ICE itself, has failed to set up a real open debate on the subject of Wind Farms; has failedl to respond to many who are on record to you and the ICE as having increasing criticism of the massive investment in Wind Farms ; and has failed to professionally debate and address the real Engineering and Economic aspects of Offshore Wind Farm Total Systems which are both grossly inefficient and impose very significant uncalled for and totally unnecessary long term core costs' increases which drive up virtually all UK domestic, commercial and industrial costs.

    Why do you persist in just simply churning out articles such as this which are little more than sales pitches and the press releases of certain Interested Parties, without any input from you by way of any examination, investigation or educated and informed engineering inputs on the real issues involved as the Editor of a magazine which is, at least unofficially, representing a major, if not the major, Professional Engineering Institution in the UK?

    The real issues involved are not anything that is unique to this subject but are simply normal everyday considerations by any Professional Engineer and his Client regarding the Functional Requirements of a Project, Options that are available which can meet these Functional Requirements, and the required true comparison of the necessary overall System Works needed for each Option, and their Overall Costs, Overall Outputs, Overall System Efficiencies and Overall Availabilities and Reliabilties.

    The ICE, suitably aided by the NCE Magazine, continues to do a great disservice to the UK plc and UK citizens on this subject, if only due to their silence at a time of quite extraordinary economic and social need in the UK. There is an increasingly expressed belief that the UK needs to cut costs and wastages, beat inflation, improve efficiencies and profitabilities, and generate wealth and exports - all requiring intensive application of excellence in science and engineering.

    What is going on, therefore, defies any logic!

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  • Thanks for your very interesting and forthright comments.<br/><br/>This week's NCE contains an interview with Crown Estates Round 3 programme manager Alastair Dutton (http://www.nce.co.uk/features/energy-and-waste/offshore-wizard/8610838.article) and in this the pros and cons of offshore wind are discussed. The debate is there to be had and by running these articles, NCE is surely contributing to this debate and promoting it.<br/><br/>The reality is that the UK is committed to delivering 15% of its energy by renewable sources by 2020 and offshore wind is, theoretically, capable of delivering a large part of this need. <br/><br/>Yes, it is too expensive. Yes it is technically challenging. And no, it does not rule out the need for investment in nuclear, coal CCS, gas and othere renewables. This is not an either/or debate - it is more complex than that. <br/><br/>Of course we will need to work out how to balance demand during periods of calm. And of course we will need to ensure that these machines are robust and reliable. Offshore wind is just part of the anwer to balanced secure source of UK power.<br/><br/>But the point that I make is simply that, right now, government is committed to driving forward a £150bn programme of offshore wind and its prepared to take on the thorny issue of higher energy prices as a result. This of course might change, although speaking at an industry lunch earlier today, energy minister Charles Hendry reiterated the need for long term consistent government policy around energy, and in the October CSR, amidst a sea of budget cuts, offshore wind managed to hang onto its £200M seed funding.<br/><br/>On the basis that Hendry's policy will enable the private sector to buy into this programme, the engineering profession should benefit from a huge new future work stream and exportable skill base. In addition, the vast supply chain and manufacturing required should also act as a catalyst for genuine regeneration all around the coast of the UK in severely deprived and unemployed areas.<br/><br/>You are quite right to point out offshore wind's failings and challenges. The programme needs engineering innovation. But I reckon that for engineers, this presents a huge amount of exciting challenge and opportunity. And after all enthusiasm and engineering ambition is what delivered the North Sea Oil boom, put men on the moon and will, I hope, secure a robust low carbon future energy supply, new exportable industr and skills and the economic growth vitally needed in the UK.<br/><br/>Best wishes<br/><br/>Antony Oliver, editor, NCE<br/><br/>

  • Thank you for your response, which I've only just picked up.

    You continue to totally miss the points made which are based on the very essence of engineering and its history in the UK of being the very cornerstone of our economic development and wealth generation!

    ICE has been conspicuous in this matter only by its lack of any effective or even actual inputs from the very start, several years ago, to properly identify to the UK government and the UK public just how grossly inefficient and massively over-expensive Offshore Wind Farm Systems are in terms of cost per Kwhr generated compared to other power generation systems - including other renewable systems such as the Severn Barrage and even Nuclear Power.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but you haven't ever written any articles and provided details from the extensive work Parsons Brinkerhoff Power and others over several years have done as independent consultants which identifies these massive inefficiencies and overall system cost increases per Kwhr power generated compared to all other power generation systems.(as much as 100-200% increased cost and rising).

    Neither have you written any articles by others such as, I think, Durham University which schedules out the overall Availability (% time actually available to generate power even if wind was available after b/d's and maintenance shutdowns - 80-90%) and actual Annual Power generated(% of annual power generated compared with plate rating of Wind Turbines allowing for no/low wind conditions - 25-30%) for Offshore Wind Farms in operation. Neither have you highlighted the fact that the government now accepts that Gas Turbines need to be provided in parallel with any Offshore Wind Farm solely to accommodate periods of no/low wind and for no other reason. Neither have you highlighted and examined the horrendous additional costs of the additional under-sea and on-land cabling systems needed solely to connect individual Wind Turbines to the nearest National Grid point which itself may be many miles away from any centre of gravity of power demand. The additional costs involved are massive and totally unnecessary and unacceptable

    Finally, never have you highlighted the fact that for replacing a Fossil Fuel Power Station serving a Maximum Power Demand of 1000 units power units capacity by an equivalent Offshore Windfarm System then you need to install a total of approx. 2000 units capacity of Power Station including the parallel Gas Turbines for no/low wind cover, whereas supplying Gas Turbines alone or Nuclear would only need approx 1150 units installed capacity. In addition the savings in CO2 emmissions by installing Wind Farms would not be 100% of the CO2 previously emitted by the replaced Fossil Fuel Plant ( as implied by the Wind Turbine and Green Party fraternity) but only approx. 25% because for approx. only approx. 25% of the Wind Farm System plated rated capacity will be generated in any year, the other 75% being supplemented or replaced during no/low wind conditions when the intended Gas Turbines or other Fossil Fuel Power Stations will be running and emitting their own CO2.

    The Institution and the ICE have failed the country! Is it not too late for us as a profession to act honourably and openly strive to stop further massive wastages of tax money and imposition of excessive power costs which the country cannot afford and needs to avoid, if only to be able to recover our ability to generate wealth?

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  • I forgot the following:
    See my previous postings on Wind Farms and you will find:

    There is no viable basis for job creation or wealth generation - unless you call digging holes in the morning and filling them in in the afternoon a viable job.Turbines are effectively a commodity product sold by those who can produce them the cheapest with the overall systems generasting gross inefficiencies where better Turbine efficiency increases will have negligent effect on overall system efficiencies - thus denying any opportunity for selling higher priced patent protected systems with higher margins!

    There is no viable and commercial basis for Wind Farm exports or exports of its power generated.We cannot compete on price and have no surplus capacity to sell.

    Innovative engineering on Wind Turbines will hardly touch, let alone significantly reduce the Total Offshore Wind Farm Systems' inefficiencies and excessive costs - these system inefficiencies and excessive system costs are related to the remote offshore location of the Turbines from the shore and the Centres of Gravity of Power Demand requiring massive additional cable systems, and to the capricious no/low wind feedstock which is uncontrollable and effectively not forecastable. You will never engineer out these inefficiencies and their directly related massive additional costs required solely for these Wind Farms and no other Power Generation systems, regardless of how much R&D money you throw at them!

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  • Will Witt

    Peter Wilson has very coherently explained what the majority of experienced engineers know by instinct .... Any machine that will not work with absolute reliability when the Start Button is pressed is a complete waste of money.

    I cannot think of any other piece of modern equipment that has this drawback.

    Even the tea clippers were replaced in the end .... fast as they were .... Because when "When the wind did not blow - The ship did not go"

    Will Witt

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  • I second Will Witt's endorsement of Peter Wilson's excellent factual summary of the case against the great white elephant that is offshore wind generation.

    Whilst I don't necessarily disagree with Anthony Oliver's view that this offers a bonanza for engineers, I'm afraid it is a bonanza in the same way that the proliferation of nuclear weaponry in the 1950's and 1960's was a bonanza for nuclear engineers and rocket scientists. In other words, a bonanza with a very high ethical price, and one that should be shunned by all right-thinking engineers.

    One could argue that the engineers of the nuclear weapons programme strove long and hard to make the weapons of mass destruction more effective and thus more cost-efficient, but does anyone today seriously believe that it would not have been a better option simply to abandon the development of nuclear weapons altogether?

    Engineers who seek to promote the claimed benefits of wind energy in the face of the overwhelming evidence against it do the profession of Engineering a gross dis-service and undermine the good work of those engineers who take their obligations to the future of our planet and our race seriously.

    Keith Elliott

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  • I am a young graduate civil engineer currently working in the offshore oil and gas industry. I find it strange the sudden interest in offshore power generation! I say this as there is very little coverage of any of the challenges that face civil engineers in the offshore oil and gas industry. The article states “Just like the North Sea Oil boom in the 1970s, civil engineers should recognise this as a game changing career opportunity”. I cannot recollect any articles recently about the still developing oil and gas industry, north sea or globally. Engineering challenges are frequently being met to provide power. Offshore engineering projects covering topsides, subsea manifolds, pipelines and decommissioning are all being ignored.

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