Every few years someone comes along and heralds the next big innovation in the workplace. So what's next?
The sound made by 100 tonnes of steel and carbon fibre rotating 400 feet overhead is surprisingly understated. Each whoosh of the 260 foot blades spans an area the size of the London Eye and generates enough electricity to power the average British home for 24 hours.
There are 32 of these 8MW turbines in the second phase of Dong Energy’s Burbo Bank wind farm spinning off the Merseyside coast.
They are the most powerful ever, dotting an area the size of almost 6,000 football pitches within the Irish Sea, each one a beacon of Britain’s global dominance in the booming offshore wind industry.
Benj Sykes, the UK boss for Dong Energy’s wind power business, predicts he may be cutting the ribbon on turbines with double this power capacity by 2024.
“If you wind the clock back four or five years, this scale of technology was considered very ambitious. Now, you can see them in reality, commercially deployed. It’s very difficult to say where we will ultimately get to,” he says.
The Burbo Bank off shore wind farm in the mouth of the River Mersey CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES
Wind turbines have already more than doubled their power capacity since Dong Energy constructed the first phase of Burbo Bank in 2007 with 3.7MW structures. By the mid-2020s turbines may double again and a capacity of 15MW could be spinning in Europe’s waters.
As the efficiency and power potential of each turbine increases, costs keep falling.
Sykes, a former oil executive at Royal Dutch Shell, has been at the helm of the Danish energy company’s UK operations for five years. In this time offshore wind has defied critics by driving its eye-watering costs down by a third, twice as quickly as planned.
“I remember when the industry in the UK first set what we very carefully referred to as an ‘ambition’ rather than a target for cost reduction. It was to drive costs to £100 a megawatt hour. Well, we’ve already broken through the £100 barrier,” he says.
The company is expected to emerge from the Government’s latest low-carbon subsidy auction as the major victor, but Sykes will not be drawn on price predictions beyond saying costs will fall below the £92.50/MWh contract price for Hinkley Point C. Experts believe offshore wind contracts set at £85 a megawatt hour are possible.
Critics of the technology say the precipitous fall in costs cannot come fast enough. The Burbo Bank project costs UK bill payers £150 per megawatt hour. But the new breed of offshore pioneers say the early prices are worth the cost to create a multi-billion-pound industry which will secure the nation’s power supplies and herald the next chapter in Britain’s maritime legacy.
The Atlantic Sea, a new container vessel, arrives in Liverpool Bay CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES
“As we see these costs continue to fall, offshore wind will emerge as one of the lowest cost utility-scale power generation for the UK,” Sykes says.
The success of offshore wind is a welcome relief to the UK’s renewable industry, which has been battered by regulatory sucker punches in recent years. Funding for onshore wind, solar and biomass power have all but dried up after falling from Government favour. Meanwhile, the rise and rise of offshore wind has quietly continued as the old concerns that it was too costly and too unpredictable begin to fall away.
Emma Pincheck, from industry group Renewable UK, says this is just the start.
“We’re set to see a rapid expansion in the UK’s offshore wind capacity, doubling from 5 gigawatts now to 10GW by 2020, maintaining our global lead.”
The Danish giant is far from alone in the UK’s burgeoning offshore market. RWE-owned Innogy has just achieved a hat-trick of major construction milestones for the £1.5bn Galloper project being built off the coast of Suffolk, including the installation of the first of 56 turbines. Meanwhile Scottish Power Renewables is pushing ahead with its £2.5bn East Anglia project due to begin power the grid in 2019.
The same innovation that is driving down costs is also increasing the blades’ ability to harness lower wind speeds. Sykes says that in the UK its wind farms operate 80pc of the time.
Dong Energy has made no secret of its plans to divest major stakes in all its offshore wind farms CREDIT: DONG ENERGY
The power might not be dispatchable the way a traditional thermal plant is, but National Grid can predict wind output for the following day with greater accuracy than it predicts the nation’s demand.
“There is no single silver bullet. We know that a resilient energy system needs a mix of different technologies. But what that mix looks like is going to have offshore wind at its very heart,” Sykes predicts.
Investors agree and are lining up to buy into a British renewables success story.
Dong Energy has made no secret of its plans to divest major stakes in all its offshore wind farms to interested investors. Earlier this year it completed a £1.6bn deal to sell half of the 573MW Race Bank wind farm to the European Infrastructure fund run by Australian investment giant Macquarie.
“This is very important for the sector. It’s a utility-scale technology which requires utility-scale investment,” he adds.
The benefits are set to spill over into UK plc. The Government has called on offshore wind developers to include UK materials and labour for at least 50pc of the project. This has brought a supply chain explosion across from cable manufacture in Hartlepool to blade factories in Hull and the Isle of Wight.
Wind Turbines Add to Farmland's Natural Beauty04:06
“One of the things that offshore wind is uniquely placed to do is build high-skilled, long-term jobs in areas of the UK where perhaps other industries in the UK don’t have the reach. All those areas which have perhaps felt less connected to the economic prosperity of the last decade – that’s exactly where we are creating these jobs,” Sykes says.
Keith Anderson, the global head of Scottish Power Renewables, says the potential for the UK to harness its world-leading maritime heritage means the potential for British supply chain firms could go global.
“One of the best things that we have in the United Kingdom is the engineering knowledge and the skills. This is also the easiest thing to export,” he says.
In onshore projects, the turbine makes up the bulk of the cost, but for offshore projects the blades account for only 30pc to 40pc of the investment. The rest – substations, foundation design, cables – open up greater opportunities for supply chain firms to take part.
“We have engineers and designers sitting in the UK working on a project we are developing in Germany and another we’re about to do in France. Now that we have projects in the US we’re going to send people over there as well to export those knowledge and skills,” he reveals.
Anderson has quietly broken into the US market by successfully bidding for two major US offshore wind projects, each the size of its entire UK portfolio.
It will makes its US debut with the Vineyard Wind project 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts after snapping up a 50pc stake in project. It could begin generating power within five years. The second foray is located off the coast of North Carolina and is expected to power up by 2025.
The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm comprises 25 wind turbinesCREDIT: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES
Given the scale of the sites, the first could generate between 1 to 2GW and the second between 2 to 3GW at full potential.
“We’ve probably got the biggest offshore development pipeline of any company in America,” Anderson says.
The renewables developer is leading the way west to stake a claim to the nascent offshore wind market in the US with a pioneer team of wind farm designers to set up frontier office in Boston, Massachusetts later this year.
“There have always been doubts over whether the US would become interested in offshore wind due to the sheer size of the country. They have a huge amount of land which has made colossal onshore wind farms possible there. And the cost differential between onshore and offshore was so big that a lot of people never thought that America would be interested,” Anderson explains.
The technology’s falling costs have nudged US policy makers to rethink what could lie offshore. JDR Cables, based in Hartlepool, is also opening a US office after snapping up a supply chain deal earlier this year. Others are expected to follow.
Wind turbines at the Gemini windpark, an offshore wind farm in the North Sea CREDIT:AFP/GETTY IMAGES
“Now everyone sees the size of the opportunity in terms of investment, in terms of industry and in terms of a growth business, so it’s progressing very quickly,” Anderson says.
“We as a country are seen to be the leaders in this type of technology. It’s great to be creating opportunities and developing skills in the UK, but also to see these being exported.”
Pinchbeck agrees and says the US is emerging as an important export destination for the UK wind industry. But the prize could be even bigger. The US is one of 43 countries that the UK’s marine and wind power industries have started to export to as part of the $290bn global renewable energy market.
“British innovation and expertise are valued highly around the world. Other countries are looking closely at our world-leading offshore wind industry and seeking to learn from it, so that they can emulate our success,” she says.
Back in the Irish Sea, Sykes says even he finds it hard to imagine the scale that the offshore wind industry could reach globally.
“The UK has taken the decision to lead in offshore wind. If we can maintain that leadership over the next few years we’ll be reaping the benefit economically as well as in terms of power generation. We need to make sure that we complete this journey with the UK at the front.”