When the world’s first offshore wind farm, Vindeby, was switched on off Denmark in 1991, the man who oversaw the pioneering project, industry giant Henrik Stiesdal, reckoned the 450kW turbines would be about as big as would ever be built. Fortunately, as he told Recharge in 2011, “I have a terrible track record with my predictions”.
Designs – including his for Bonus, Vestas and Siemens – have grown exponentially over the decades into gargantuan engineering marvels of 15MW and larger with rotors wider than the wingspans of two jetliners, and with them an industry that now has more than 35GW in operation — and 2TW in its sights by mid-century.
Government moves in recent months have further fuelled hopes that the sector’s rising ambitions in major plays around the world are on their way to being translated into transformative action – with the US now targeting 30GW and the UK 50GW by 2030, respectively, and China on track to deliver almost 115GW by the same date.
Meanwhile, Germany announced auctions to galvanise a 70GW goal for 2045; Sweden revealed it has 15GW in permitting with “tens of gigawatts” beyond; Ireland is resuscitating gigascale plans that had stalled more than a decade ago; Norway has – after long deliberations – set its first long-term target for 30GW by 2040; and France, where first auctions were held in 2012 but progress has since proceeded at a crawl, recently saw its first offshore wind farm send power to the grid.
But more significantly, a number of emerging markets have added their names to the roster as future international offshore wind hot-spots, including Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Turkey and India – the last of which said it would hold a multi-gigawatt auction “within months”. And in oil-rich Azerbaijan, the World Bank unrolled a roadmap that could see the nation install 7GW of turbines in the Caspian Sea by 2040.
Research house the Renewables Consulting Group calculated that the sector’s development pipeline grew almost 90% last year – by over 200GW – off the back of British, Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Brazilian projects. Analyst group Wood Mackenzie expects 24 countries to have at least one 100MW-plus offshore wind farm by 2031, up from nine today, representing some 330GW – ten-fold increase on 2020.
Farther out to sea, floating wind arrays will by 2050 make up over 15% of the total offshore deployment, contributing over 260GW to the 1.75GW forecast to be installed, according to DNV, as the rapidly advancing sector’s “growing momentum” fills industry sails.
Monumental challenges remain for offshore wind to reach what one US study several years ago called “civilisational” power production, of course, among them the supply-chain coastal construction infrastructure to build and operate this vast armada of machines.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said: “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” In offshore wind, the world in fact has both. Over 30 years of experience experimenting and expanding an ever-larger fleet of supersize turbines is being drawn on to move steadily forward, working up the gears, towards the thousands of gigawatts that will be needed to accelerate the planet through its evermore precarious energy transition.