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Why the UK can become a global leader in floating wind

OPINION | The ambition, resources and know-how are already present, writes Michael Guldbrandtsen of MAKE

A new unit of British tidal developer Atlantis Resources announced on 26 January that it will collaborate with French floating wind technology specialist Ideol to develop up to 1.5GW of floating wind power in UK waters.

That announcement followed positive news from the UK government-backed Offshore Wind Programme Board that the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) for offshore wind in the UK had dropped from £142/MWh in 2010-11 to £97 ($121/€113) in 2015-16.

The UK has also launched a green paper outlining a new industrial strategy for the UK in a post-Brexit reality, aimed at creating a stronger economy based on the country’s strategic strengths. The plan includes a review of opportunities for reducing the cost of achieving the UK’s decarbonisation goals, including a specific focus on how to use existing instruments to further reduce the cost of offshore wind. The importance of new energy storage and grid technologies is also highlighted in the strategy paper. Floating wind is not specifically mentioned, but it would fit nicely with the strategic aspirations to become a more innovative economy and cultivate world-leading sectors.

Atlantis Energy and Ideol eye 1.5GW of UK floating offshore wind

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Since Statoil installed the first floating wind foundation in 2009 — the Hywind spar buoy off the coast of Norway — only five projects have been grid-connected, despite the introduction of more than 40 floating wind concepts. This suggests that it’s not too late for the UK to pursue a strategy of becoming a leader in this field.

Between 2016 and 2020, however, six multi-turbine projects are set to be grid-connected in the UK, Portugal and France. Development of floating wind projects are starting to move forward globally, most notably in Japan, France and the US, and if the UK wants to become a world leader in this area, specific attention needs to be given to this segment. The UK is not the only country aiming to gain a competitive edge in floating wind.

With less than 100MW of combined capacity, France, Japan and the US have virtually no experience in offshore wind energy. By contrast, the UK has more than 5GW of offshore wind power in operation. Leveraging its offshore wind — and oil & gas — experience could give the UK a strong advantage compared to other nations. The country’s unique position in bottom-fixed offshore technology was partly catalysed by a support level that was considerably higher than in other countries around the North Sea. Floating technology in the UK could follow a similar path to success if supportive policies can be put in place.

Whereas bottom-fixed offshore costs are declining rapidly — with new record-low strike prices recorded last year in Denmark (€50/MWh for Kriegers Flak) and in the Netherlands (€54/MWh for Borssele 3 & 4) — floating wind needs scale and technological innovation to deliver accelerated cost reductions.

Strengthening support of floating wind development to reduce the cost of energy in the long term would help put the UK in a position to not only harness the abundant offshore wind resources in its deep waters, but also deliver affordable clean energy. It would also foster a world-leading sector that in many ways fits well within its bottom-fixed track record (eg, manufacturing, O&M, transmission). Supporting this fledgling technology in the short to medium term would mean that Atlantis and Ideol could achieve their ambition to build large-scale projects — a move that would truly showcase the UK’s renewable marine competences.

Michael Guldbrandtsen is managing consultant at MAKE Consulting