Time for wind energy industry to power ahead

In October 2020, the UK government announced an ambitious new goal for the UK wind energy industry: to generate enough energy from offshore wind power to power all UK homes by 2030.  

Reaching the target will require an increase from the then-produced capacity of 8.9 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts: no mean feat. And although the government’s aim shows great intent, a lot will need to happen to reach this objective. 

However, while it might be difficult, the goal provides plenty of opportunity to innovate and hire in both the energy sector itself and the sectors that will support it. So, what progress is being made so far, and what needs to happen to reach the goal by 2030? 

Gathering pace 

The target itself could be open to interpretation,” says Joel Telling, Head of Renewable Services at engineering product and service provider Trac. “What it does do is give the necessary heft to the ongoing climate emergency rhetoric and further supports the business case for transition [to renewable energy]. It looks like the right mix of political, environmental and economic factors. They are aligning for this new phase of the renewable industry. That’s the right thing for the planet and a great opportunity for industry as well.” 

Some organisations have already taken strides to provide some of the infrastructure needed to meet this goal, says Mike Blanch​, Associate Director of green energy consultancy BVG Associates with 24 years’ experience in offshore wind. 

“To meet [the government’s] target, more manufacturing facilities will be required in the UK,” he says. “Some are already happening, like GE’s announcement for a blade factory at Teesside, and Siemens Gamesa’s announcement to extend their Hull blade factory. We expect more announcements to be made.” 

Trac, meanwhile, has established a dedicated renewables business unit. “As a business, Trac works across energy, infrastructure and telecoms and has always been involved in renewables but on a project-by-project basis,” explains Telling. “This new unit gives us a specific focus and, since its inception in March, we’ve already secured a number of offshore and onshore projects, both in the UK and overseas. It’s led to an increased focus and it’s already paying off in terms of workload volume.” 

Blanch says that support schemes, like the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) offshore wind manufacturing investment support scheme (whose application window ran from February to May 2021), will pave the way for other new projects. SeAH Wind Ltd will receive funding towards a new £117 million monopile foundation factory at the Able Marine Energy Park on the Humber, creating up to 750 direct jobs by 2030. 

Smulders Projects UK will receive funding towards a £70 million investment in new equipment and infrastructure to enable the manufacture of offshore wind turbine transition pieces at their existing site in Wallsend, Newcastle, creating and safeguarding up to 325 direct jobs. 

Meanwhile, GRI Renewable Industries is the second confirmed company to build facilities at Able Marine Energy Park on the South Bank of the Humber, with £78 million investment in an offshore wind turbine tower factory, creating up to 260 direct jobs. 

However, there have also been some delays. Crown Estate Scotland’s decision to extend the ScotWind leasing application process from March until June this year is just one example. ScotWind was initially launched in June 2020 and is the first round of offshore wind leasing in Scottish waters in over a decade. The extension means that applicants for new projects in the waters are still awaiting a decision. 

Outside the box thinking 

Tony Appleton is Director of Offshore Wind at Burns & McDonnell, an employee-owned company that plans, designs, permits, constructs and manages projects worldwide, with a particular focus on power in its UK business. He has 17 years’ experience in offshore wind projects, having previously worked in solar, nuclear and coal. 

He says a key barrier that will need to be overcome to hit the government target is the ability to place turbines further out to sea. “If you look at where wind turbines currently are around the UK, the majority are within 40 miles offshore,” he explains. “To hit the target, they’ll need to go further out, and that has two impacts. The first is the power transition technology – once you get past about 80 miles, you have to start thinking about High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) technology, rather than High Voltage Alternating Current (HVAC), and that’s new for offshore wind. The other side is that when you move to deeper waters, you’ve got to use floating technology. They’re fairly major step changes.” 

Connecting turbines to the National Grid is another key challenge that will need to be overcome in order to meet the government’s target. But Blanch says that other ways of utilising wind power may also help in reaching the aim. 

“We know a lot has got to happen with grid by 2030, but if we are to get so much more of our energy from offshore wind, there is no reason why it should be from grid-connected wind farms,” he says. “We import liquified natural gas via ships, and there is no reason that we shouldn’t use hydrogen transported from locations where it is produced directly by wind energy without any grid connection. 

“Green hydrogen is really important in the medium term and it’s so important that we don’t have hydrogen that’s derived from fossil fuels.” 

Blanch adds that the government will also need to review its policies and consider rewarding companies that are looking to overcome other wider grid challenges that come with generating power from the wind. For example, one of the main considerations is where the turbines themselves are physically placed. 

“An important aspect which doesn’t tend to be rewarded is geographical spread,” he says. “The more geographically spread out wind turbines are from one another, the more likely you are to get more consistent power from them. If you put all the wind turbines in the same area, you create a greater need for storage too.” 

Telling adds that standardisation in the industry will also be integral to success. “A lot of processes are project specific, rather than industry specific,” he says. “If you compare it to the oil and gas sector, where everything is highly defined (although there is room for innovation), that level of maturity is still needed in the wind energy sector.” 

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Keeping up with the conversation 

When it comes to spotting future opportunities, Blanch says that keeping up to date with government developments is the most important thing. “It’s a case of listening to what BEIS announces, but one of the key policies is already there, which is the Contracts for Difference (CfD) system,” he explains. 

CfDs incentivise investment in renewable energy by providing project developers with high upfront costs and long lifetimes with direct protection from volatile wholesale prices, and they protect consumers from paying increased support costs when electricity prices are high. 

Blanch says that these sorts of systems are mutually beneficial for both suppliers and government: “CfDs awarded for UK offshore wind projects coming online in 2022-23 are expected to generate a healthy revenue for the government. It’s actually the stable 15-year period of a CfD that is the crucial thing [for suppliers], not the price.” 

Appleton says that there have been some good first discussions between industry and government to lay the foundations necessary to reach the target. However, he says it would be beneficial for all parties if conversations were expanded. After all, businesses building and managing offshore wind farms will require new infrastructure and strong supply chains if they are to be successful. “Government and industry integration has taken place, but the issue is that this engagement is generally with developers,” he says. “The people that the government hasn’t been engaging with are those that are further down the chain. Engagement needs to come at all levels.” 

Evolving talent 

As advances are made in the industry to meet the 2030 target, organisations will also need to find talent to support their ambitions. 

Blanch says that looking for people with transferable skills can be a good place to start. “There is a lot of opportunity for veterans in operational maintenance, which is a major employer in this industry,” he says. “With the discipline they bring, veterans make very good offshore wind technicians.”  

Telling adds that those currently working in the oil and gas sectors are also good options, but that the culture of the wind energy sector is different. “The technical skills are directly transferable,” he says. “We can solve a lot of problems by exchanging knowledge between sectors. However, the culture is quite different so there needs to be a real emphasis on onboarding.” 

Of course, as with almost any other industry, the global pandemic has brought into focus the benefits of being able to work remotely. While in most industries this simply means not going to an office, in the offshore wind industry, solutions in this area can save people from having to venture out to sea.  

“Covid created this situation where there was much more focus on doing things remotely,” Blanch says. “Although offshore wind was already very interested and actively working to reduce the number of trips made to offshore turbines, innovations that allow businesses to operate remotely, and the talent that supports these innovations, are of even higher interest to the industry.” 

In the longer term, Appleton says that it will be important for industry and government to engage with educational institutes to secure a continuous talent pipeline. “A number of universities are heavily involved in the sector already, but it needs to roll down further so that there is more engagement with schools on STEM skills,” he says. “The exciting thing about offshore wind is that it doesn’t matter what your background or interest is. There’s a place for you in the sector.” 

He says that in the US, some companies have taken steps to train up minority or disadvantaged groups to fill talent gaps, and that this is one area the UK should explore more. 

“Just because someone is disadvantaged, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the knowledge or ability to process and run these projects. We need to do more to push that in this country and it’s something the government can also support.” 

Appleton concludes that perhaps the biggest advantage the industry has is that it is exciting. He says that by sharing some of the big statistics and facts found in the industry, it is easy to grab people’s attention. 

“The blades on some turbines are as long as a rugby pitch, including the dead ball area,” he says. “One spin of a turbine is enough to power a house for 36 hours. These are just two factors that make people say ‘Really? Tell me more’.” It’s those kinds of messages that we need to get out there.” 

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