The UK’s pre-COP26 announcement of plans to decarbonise electricity production by 2035 followed a pattern familiar to watchers of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government – eye-catching headlines that fail to tell the whole story and statements of intent that raise as many questions as they answer.

A front page of The Times declaring Britain’s electricity would be ‘all green’ by 2035, and which first alerted the energy industry that a bold new policy was afoot, failed to take account of the significant role of nuclear power in the UK’s plans or explain how the country could wean itself off a still-heavy reliance on gas in less than 15 years – the latter in the spotlight as never before amid a cost crisis that is driving energy companies out of business.

Even Johnson’s harshest critics would not deny that bringing forward by 15 years the power sector element of the UK’s overall target for 2050 energy net-zero is a hugely significant ambition, but one thing is certain – his 2035 decarbonisation dreams will fail without massive further offshore wind deployment.

Britain – which currently has just over 10GW of offshore wind plant in service – already has a goal set by Johnson to quadruple that to 40GW by 2030, when he famously said he wanted Britain to be the “Saudi Arabia of wind power”. The Prime Minister during his more recent net-zero pronouncements hinted that 60GW could be needed, without saying by when.

Both those figures could be just a fraction of the total required. Commentators regularly cite 100GW of wind at sea when discussing the 2050 net zero agenda, and modellers at Wärtsilä Energy claimed 112GW needs to be in place by the end of this decade to keep Britain’s CO2 emissions reduction goals on track.

Even huge projects already being built such as the 3.6GW Dogger Bank off eastern England, on course to be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, are a drop in the ocean of such massive totals.

But just as the UK offshore wind sector faces calls for levels of deployment unimaginable just a few years ago, leading industry figures are warning of obstacles that could actually slow the build-out at a time when it should be accelerating to warp speed.

Danielle Lane, the UK country manager for Vattenfall, the Swedish utility giant building some of the biggest wind projects in the North Sea told Recharge that to match expectations that rise “every time the government speaks… there’s got to be a fundamental change in the way of doing things”.

Vattenfall’s twin Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas projects of 1.8GW each, which the developer aims to construct in the southern North Sea on seabed secured in the UK Crown Estate’s 2009 Round 3 lease round, both still remained unconsented by the start of October this year.

The wind farms, which Vattenfall estimates could supply 4% of UK electricity demand between them, have battled to overcome hurdles including legal challenges from a litigious villager on the east of England coast angry at the impact of onshore works, and the need to satisfy concerns over the impact on seabirds of ever-larger offshore turbine arrays.

More than a decade from seabed lease award to consenting, and between leasing rounds themselves – the Crown Estate’s Round 4 winners were only revealed early this year – is too long, and developers are having to deal with “multiple different agencies across the spectrum” to advance the projects, Lane warned. “[Development] is going to have to happen more quickly or we won’t reach 2035 and have a zero-carbon system.”

Vattenfall is not alone in facing energy-sapping challenges getting massive projects to the point where construction can begin.

Orsted, the world’s biggest offshore wind developer and the early pacesetter in the UK, faced delays to the original consenting schedule of its 2.4GW, up to £8bn Hornsea 3 while it worked out a strategy to mitigate impacts on a population of kittiwakes, eventually advancing a plan to spend the equivalent of $20m on artificial birds’ nests.

While offshore wind developers are eager to stress that they in no way want license to ride roughshod over environmental regulation, the prospect of tens upon tens of gigawatts facing the same consenting labyrinth hardly bodes well for Johnson’s ambitious deployment timelines.

Unpicking the regulatory gridlock

Lane said the UK may need a single agency, similar to the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) that acts as a regulatory one-stop shop for UK hydrocarbons operators, to offer the offshore wind sector a similar avenue to manage leasing, consents and look at the big picture on vital issues such as grid connections, the cumulative impact of multiple projects and co-existence with other maritime users.

Of that list, grid connection may be the trickiest issue. The legal challenge against Vattenfall’s Vanguard focused on the impact of onshore construction and cabling, and the UK’s current system of multiple point-to-point links to wind farms has become a live political issue on the North Sea coast, with one local member of parliament claiming “East Anglia is in danger of being ruined” by the amount of land-based activity needed.

Senior executives from other offshore wind big-hitters such as RWE and Iberdrola, as Recharge has previously reported, have described the current system for offshore grid connection as not fit for purpose and number-one priority for reform.

The UK government and energy regulator Ofgem are looking at options for shared offshore wind transmission that would likely be welcomed by all parties – and, research suggests, could save the sector almost $8bn in costs, as well as easing pressure on coastal communities.

The problem facing the industry – and by extension the UK government’s ambitions – is that new regulatory regimes and streamlined planning systems inevitably take time to put in place, and in energy investment terms 2035 is, if not quite the blink of an eye, certainly a scratch of Boris Johnson’s carefully unkempt head of hair.

That explains the contention by Vattenfall’s Lane that the UK needs to address the challenges facing offshore wind with the same sense of urgency it brought to tackling the impact of coronavirus.

“It’s amazing how quickly things happened [during] Covid. That was seen as a national emergency and rightly so, but climate change is equally an emergency [and needs a] Covid-like level of focus,” she said.

This is one of a series of special articles from Recharge in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow. See the others below.