Innovation is key to the UK's offshore wind success

OPINION | The UK needs to purse the double-win of cost reduction and maximum economic benefit from its offshore wind sector, writes Stephen Wyatt

Continuing cost reduction to build out the maximum possible installed operating capacity and securing the greatest possible share of that market are the two key pillars of a successful UK offshore wind industry.

With costs continuing to fall rapidly and installed capacity increasing year on year, there is a tremendous opportunity for the UK’s technology-based businesses to capitalise on the growth of global offshore wind and secure the biggest possible slice of the market.

Successfully fostering sector innovation is key in continuing to drive down these costs and increase the UK’s share of the global offshore wind market, and the UK’s most successful innovators tend to be technology-led businesses with high growth potential who are at the heart of the UK Government’s industrial strategy.

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In 2016, the supply chain for UK offshore wind projects was worth around £3.1bn ($4bn) and this will only increase as installed capacity increases. By successfully developing capability in areas of existing UK manufacturing strength such as blades and towers, cables and operations and maintenance – and developing strengths in others areas such as installation and foundations – UK businesses could benefit from export opportunities in a European market projected to be worth £9.2bn per year by 2030.

That is why we’ve launched the government-backed Offshore Wind Innovation Hub (OWIH) – to help UK businesses identify and capitalise on these tremendous opportunities, and further grow the UK's leading global position in offshore wind, ensuing that our world-class technologies and services remain at the forefront of innovation and are promoted internationally.

The Hub will act as the focal point for offshore wind industry innovation – providing a consistent set of evidenced-backed innovation priorities for action by the public and private sectors, and highlighting the impact addressing these priorities will have in not only growing the UK offshore wind industry, but in generating economic benefit and creating jobs.

As an industry, we already know what the key offshore wind cost reduction drivers are. The Hub is all about getting specific, and is working on developing a technology roadmap that will identify not only what the big wins are today for driving down industry costs, but what the priorities of the future will be. It will identify the natural owners of the technology and know-how to tackle these innovation challenges, and will work with them to link up investment, development support and open up routes to market.

"We are already on the cusp of a step change in turbine size"

In the short term, we must continue to pull through learning from other sectors and use existing technologies in the offshore wind environment. Technology from sectors such as defence, satellite applications, and oil and gas, can be adapted to solve the challenges facing the sector today. New ways of carrying out blade inspections, advanced blade turbine control, using floating lidar instead of met masts, or shifting from AC to DC and 33kV to 66kV can result in significant cost reductions.

We also need to look longer term, at what are the future technology innovations that will bring about a step change for the industry in terms of turbine technology. What are the future innovations that will allow the development of 10MW-plus turbines, solve intermittency and improve crew transfers? We are already on the cusp of a step change in turbine size, and our future industry will also need new vessel technology, automated maintenance technologies and energy storage for example.

For the UK to truly grasp the opportunity offshore wind presents we must pull off the “double” of both continuing cost reduction and ensuring we maximise UK economic benefit.

Stephen Wyatt is research & disruptive innovation director at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult