OPINION: David Clarke of ETI

The British may curse their weather, but they are blessed with a rich offshore wind resource.

Exploiting its potential, though, will mean a lot of hard work and considerable investment to get costs down to a level at which it can compete with fossil fuels and more stabilised low-carbon sectors. And to achieve that, co-operation between government and the private sector will be paramount.

A study published last year by the UK Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Task Force concluded that if the government, the industry and other stakeholders work together more effectively, the sector could deliver offshore projects that can be viable against other low-carbon technologies.

The focus is now on bringing the levelised cost of offshore wind down by one third this decade to £100 ($152) per MWh — a level at which the government thinks it could increase its target for the industry from 13GW to 18GW by 2020.

The drive towards £100/MWh by the end of the decade is a key step, but to support its longer-term position, offshore wind needs to look towards reducing costs even further to become a competitive component of the future energy mix — and an attractive prospect for investors.

The industry will need to be intelligent and prudent. We must be innovative, focusing on ambitious, sustained cost reduction, while demonstrating reliability and predictability to attract investment.

So far, UK installations have mostly been in shallow water depths of up to 30 metres off the eastern coast of England, around major estuaries and off the North Sea coast.

To drive the highest energy yields and the lowest costs, sites need to be targeting higher wind speeds while remaining close to shore, simplifying access and supporting infrastructure. Areas exist that meet these goals, principally in deeper waters (up to 120 metres) off southwest and northwest England, and off Scotland. Studies show the potential to reach a levelised cost of electricity of £85/MWh at these sites, but that will require new technology and operating models.

The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) is investing more than £65m to tackle the issues involved in exploiting these deep-water, high-wind sites cost-effectively. We are looking at floating platforms for turbines; new technology for manufacturing very long, low-cost, lightweight blades; and indoor test facilities for early demonstration and improvement of large turbine reliability.

Floating platforms are challenging structures, technically and financially. The ETI has commissioned The Glosten Associates to deliver a front-end engineering design study for a floating system demonstrator, using its PelaStar tension-leg platform and Alstom’s Haliade 150-6MW turbine. If successful, this could result in the world’s first 6MW low-cost floating demonstrator being installed in British waters.

In January, we announced a £15.5m project with Blade Dynamics to develop and demonstrate improved material, manufacturing and structural technologies for constructing the world’s longest blades for the next generation of 8-10MW offshore turbines. The blades will initially be targeted at the 5-7MW machines currently being tested.

We have also invested £25m in the UK’s first full-turbine indoor test rig at the National Renewable Energy Centre in northeast England. This facility is seen as crucial to the success and expansion of the offshore industry. Capable of testing complete drivetrains and nacelles up to 15MW, it will start commercial testing this year.

But technology cannot deliver a successful future for offshore wind in isolation. It needs to link with a capable supply chain and a supportive regulatory environment to build investor confidence.

The potential rewards, after all, are immense. Even leaving aside the advantages in energy security and environmental benefits, spending on offshore infrastructure will generate economic activity. It also offers the UK a chance to develop a strong presence in new industries and services that will have a large global market and do not yet have entrenched market leaders.

Then there is the employment bonanza. Some of the jobs the industry creates will be highly skilled. Other functions in installation and servicing may offer a range of opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers with talents that can be transferred from declining sectors. These will materialise only if the workforce is educated and skilled, which brings us back to co-operation between government and the private sector.

If we are to capitalise on these opportunities, time is of the essence. There are big challenges to innovate, build capability, de-risk and attract investment. To succeed, we must act now.

David Clarke is chief executive of the Energy Technologies Institute, a joint venture between the UK government and major energy and engineering firms

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders’ Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry