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Offshore wizard

Crown Estates’ Alastair Dutton kicks off a series of supply chain events around the UK today “getting down to the detail” of its £150bn Round Three offshore wind power programme. He tells Antony Oliver what to expect.

By any stretch of the engineer’s imagination, Crown Estates’ £150bn Round Three offshore wind programme to construct 10,000 wind turbines around the UK by 2020 - each up to 200km offshore and in water up to 60m deep - is challenging.

Perhaps, in many ways it is a challenge equal to if not greater than that tackled by the UK engineering profession in the 1970s during the North Sea Oil boom.

Certainly it is an exciting prospect. Yet not everyone in the industry believes that the goal of adding up to 32GW of offshore wind power to the grid by 2020 is achievable. In fact, according to a survey in NCE’s recentInfrastructure 2011 report, 70% thought that it would not be.

For many others in the profession, the money spent delivering up to 47GW of offshore wind power from Rounds 1, 2 and 3 in the UK and Scottish Territorial Waters by 2020 would be more effectively spent on nuclear power.

“We have to deliver renewable energy - we have no choice about that. The question is what technology do you want?”

Alastair Dutton,Crown Estates


But as Alastair Dutton, Crown Estates Round 3 programme manager, points out, delivering this ambitious programme is a vital if the UK is to meet its target of producing 15% of the nation’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

“The 15% renewable by 2020 target is a mandatory government target so that doesn’t move,” he says, pointing out that while nuclear has a role in the energy supply mix, it is unable to contribute to this particular renewable target.

“We have to deliver renewable energy - we have no choice about that. The question is what technology do you want?” he adds. “The only at-scale affordable technology in the timetable is offshore wind.”

Bulk supplier

Offshore wind, he says, is now predicted to be the bulk supplier of the renewable gigawatt hours required in the UK, and the Round Three target is therefore still to deliver 25GW to the grid by 2020. One of the key parts of the programme, he says, must be to help drive down the cost of offshore wind.

“We have recently done some analysis that says that it is still perfectly possible - very challenging no doubt - but we can see a way to get there,” he adds. “Offshore wind to date has had to work with on-shore technology transferred offshore and that naturally has a cost. It is now moving into a phase where people design specifically for offshore and the scale economies will start to work in.”

Dutton stresses that the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the industry in tackling the first two rounds of offshore wind farm development now stands in good stead and will provide a solid foundation from which to drive forward with Round Three

These have already delivered 1.3GW of power from 15 projects built, commissioned and put into service. Another six projects with 2.2GW capacity are under construction and there is a further 6.3GW in the pipeline. In the Scottish Territorial Waters a further 5.7GW is now under development across 10 sites.

“In the very first analysis it had 45 layers of analysis but we are now up to over 450”

Alastair Dutton


“The confidence in the industry as a whole has gone up despite a negative economy,” he explains. “Projects continue to be implemented and the targets haven’t changed. Finance for the projects gets harder, but it is still being put together.”

Dutton, of course, accepts that the Round Three programme, launched in January last year, is a huge leap forward in terms of scale, complexity and ambition when compared to the previous two rounds.
Not least since none of these wind farms to date is more than 18km offshore, with most considerably closer to land and in comparatively shallow water.

The solution, he says, has been for Crown Estates as the owner of the sea bed, to embrace the challenge and work with the industry to, wherever possible, mitigate the risks as a fully engaged client and partner and so enable the developers to focus on finding innovative solutions.

“That’s what makes Round Three offshore wind as a whole so different from any other renewable sector in the UK. Nothing has quite the same programme to help support all the projects,” says Dutton, pointing out that each of the nine development zones is in fact a programme from which numerous separate wind farm projects will flow.

Working with bidders

Before letting the each of the nine zones to developers, Crown Estates worked closely with bidders to reduce huge amounts of expensive duplicate survey work and put together its unique Marine Resource System (MARS) to give information about the conditions they can expect.

“In the very first analysis it had 45 layers of analysis but we are now up to over 450,” says Dutton, highlighting the fact that information includes everything from water depth and currents, to fish and mammals, sea bird migration paths and submarine patrol routes. “No other marine landowner has got to this level of knowledge about what they have.”

Having used this data to work out the best areas suitable for development, the MARS system is crucial in helping to ease developers through the potentially expensive planning and consent process which is now underway.

But it is just one unique aspect of the client’s approach to this programme, as it attempts to de-risk and so lower costs at every step of the way.

“There are many potential show stoppers but they are all tacklable,” he says. “In Round Three we also put up £70M for the development phase up to consent. We then work directly with consenting bodies at the national level to ease the path through planning.”

Typically an offshore wind farm takes around seven years to construct from outset to power into the grid. Of course planning decisions on offshore wind were going to be guided and smoothed by the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

Major infrastructure planning unit

But in line with the Coalition government’s policies, this responsibility is now being handed to the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, so Crown Estates will again play a role helping developers understand and negotiate this new relationship.

“We have a direct relationship with those involved and so we can provide some trusted advice as to what might or might not work,” he says. The Offshore Wind Developers Forum, he points out, now sees chief executives of 17 companies in the sector meet regularly with senior government officials for “hard-nosed conversations” to resolve and potential issues standing in the way of progress.

And while Dutton is clear that there are few short-cuts that can be taken when it comes to securing planning consent, financing and then technical go-ahead to construct these huge offshore facilities, he points out that there is now increasingly consistent government backing and local political support for the programme.

He points to the fact the £200M of support funding made it through October’s Comprehensive Spending Review as evidence that government realises the potential offshore wind has for transforming the energy industry and so boost local economies around the UK.

He says that it is important that the UK market does as much of the work as possible.

“Firstly, it is very hard for the government to explain that support for the market isn’t going to end up with jobs in the UK. Second it makes for a better investment if your income stream and costs are in the same currency. And third you want the support for the industry to be local.”

Recent government support for offshore wind and the scale of the Round Three ambition make the UK increasingly a key location to invest in offshore wind. Comparisons with the 1970s North Sea oil boom are, says Dutton, inevitable.

“In the last two years in Europe the biggest investment in any power technology was in wind. The wind industry has continued to beat its own targets”

Alastair Dutton

“In the last two years in Europe the biggest investment in any power technology was in wind. The wind industry has continued to beat its own targets,” he points out. “Our purpose is to make the UK attractive for investment in the wind industry.”

The key, he adds, is to ensure that investors and the supply chain companies realise that this potentially huge market is available.

And of course he is also keen to ensure that engineers with the appropriate skills are equally aware of the opportunities.

“If you like a challenge and you are professional come and join,” he says. “This is a wonderful opportunity for people to build their whole careers if they wish. You can now talk about careers in offshore wind engineering in a way that you couldn’t two years ago.”

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