As prime minister David Cameron explained last year, the potential for Britain to lead in the offshore wind industry is immense.
Nobody said it was easy
It “will create jobs, help secure our energy supplies and protect our planet,” he said.
But no one ever said that building the infrastructure for 32GW of wind power generation capacity in up to 60m deep water and as much as 250km offshore would be easy.
So it is proving. The Crown Estate, owner and guardian of the UK seabed, remains totally committed to having 25GW of wind power − a quarter of the UK’s electricity needs − up and running with power feeding into the grid by 2020.
That said, it is fully aware of the scale of the technical, financial, economic, logistical and resource availability challenges that hitting these targets present.
And it is fully aware that to be successful and sustainable, offshore wind power capacity must be delivered more efficiently, more cheaply and with less public subsidy.
In response the Crown Estate has been running its “enabling actions” programme of activities designed specifically to help smooth the mammoth and hugely expensive maze through which each of the developers has to navigate ahead of construction.
“We have £11M to spend on anything that de-risks or accelerates the delivery”
Crown Estates Round 3 development manager Chris Lloyd
“We have £11M to spend on anything that de-risks or accelerates the delivery of Round 3 offshore wind or helps developers to work together more effectively,” explains Crown Estates Round 3 development manager Chris Lloyd. “It is about using our role as landlord to encourage consultation, dialogue and understanding among key stakeholders.”
Lloyd points out that a large proportion of the original budget has already been spent. Projects have included the comprehensive Marine Resource System (MARS) seabed survey carried out by the Crown Estate on behalf of developers.
There is also the soon to be completed £2M radar enhancement research project which is being carried out with electronics giant Raytheon.
“Now we have less money but more time to spend. But all activities in the enabling actions programme have to relate to the mitigation of risk across the project,” he says.
The enabling actions relate to five specific “strategic workstreams” covering health and safety, planning and consenting, supply chain and skills, grid and technology and project economics and finance.
Each year until 2016 the Crown Estate will be rolling out a series of discrete projects to help the developers and planning bodies negotiate the truly uncharted waters that lead − it is hoped − towards the largest programme of offshore wind development ever seen.
Of course, over five years the amount of money available for the Crown Estate to spend on these enabling projects is tiny. It will fall annually from £2M this year to around £350,000 by 2016. This compares with the estimated £400M it will cost each developer to get though the planning process to the start of construction.
This is why there is a need to engage these big spenders throughout. As a backbone, and in many ways a driver for this work, the Offshore Wind Developers Forum has been formed to help accelerate the delivery of this vital infrastructure.
Senior executives in the 18 developers working on offshore wind projects around the UK, the government, the Crown Estate, and industry bodies work together to remove barriers to delivering this programme.
“Because we have a view of the whole portfolio we can see things that they [the developers] perhaps cannot”
Crown Estates Round 3 development manager Chris Lloyd
The Crown Estate’s position at the heart of the process, but as neither developer nor planner, is critical to efforts to provide a strategic overview.
“Because we have a view of the whole portfolio we can see things that they perhaps cannot,” says Lloyd. “[Developers] don’t always have time to step back and see the wider picture.”
Clearly, ways to reduce the cost of the infrastructure and manage risks so as to more effectively lever in funding are high on the priority list.
Given that the high cost of offshore wind farm projects is being offset by the government in the form of subsidies, there are, Lloyd explains, some major projects underway to help understand and reduce development costs. “Fundamentally it is about just how much can the government afford to decarbonise the economy,” he says.
Maps and models
The Crown Estate has been helping developers through one to one discussion but also by work to identify to the best locations to invest in, using a model to map the cost of electricity generation around the coast.
However, perhaps the key piece of work in this section is around finding and helping developers to take advantage of so-called cost reduction pathways.
“The cost of offshore wind energy in 2009 was around £150/MWhr and we want to help bring this down to £100/MWhr by the start date,” says Lloyd, pointing out that at that level there would be less, perhaps no need for subsidy. “We are working together with developers, industry and government to identify how to cut costs and demonstrate that this is a suitable solution to the UK’s energy needs.”
The first output from this work is expected at the end of the year. “The key is to set a pathway to achieve our planned 30% reduction,” he says. “It will be through stimulating and encouraging innovation, standardisation and economies of scale.”
But it is not all about managing cost. Managing and reducing risks is just as important to the overall programme.
For example, health and safety best practice is vital for the programme, explains Lloyd, not least to prevent death and injury in a very dangerous and challenging environment, but also to protect the programme. “If we start killing people then the Health and Safety Executive will rightly step in and the programme will be delayed - that is a major risk.”
Meanwhile, away from the softer issues of planning, the Crown Estate is also completing an important and potentially very significant piece of work to rationalise and redesign the grid connection networks linking the development regions to the shore.
“We have been partnering with National Grid to understand integrated designs and so create more robust networks,” Lloyd explains.
The Offshore Transmission Network Feasibility Study has looked carefully at possible routes for cables from wind farms to the shore and their interaction with onshore development. This will inform future network design, constraints, cost analysis and environmental assessment.
At the end of August a report identifying best practice in connection technology will be available. It will propose connections between each of the development zones rather than each one having a separate connection to the shore.
The report will also identify and adopt standardised cable sizes and voltages which could save up to 25% in cabling costs but also substantially improve the reliability of the network.
“It’s about cajoling and nudging developers towards a single way of thinking,” says Lloyd.