Offshore wind is a superstar of the renewable energy revolution.
The ability to deliver massive amounts of green power at ever-cheaper prices, regenerate run-down ports and create high-skilled jobs mean giant offshore wind farms are planned in seas from Australia to Norway, from Japan to California, and all points in between.
But it’s not quite all plain sailing, and offshore wind developers face their fair share of headaches on their journey to the global energy big-time. Here are five of the biggest.
Birds are a tricky issue for offshore wind, with turbine collisions and disturbance of nesting grounds putting project developers in conflict with environmental campaigners who would normally be renewable energy’s natural allies.
Orsted, the Danish group that’s led the growth of wind at sea, is currently desperately trying to find a way to look after a colony of kittiwakes that’s holding up a $10bn project off eastern England that would be its biggest yet.
Birds have also reared their heads as an issue for planned offshore wind projects in Germany and the US.
Some argue our feathered friends will just have to take one for Team Earth, heroic friendly-fire victims in the war on emissions.
But the wind industry is working hard to be kinder to birds, and new research that suggests painting one turbine blade black can send avian deaths plunging sparked global interest when it was reported by Recharge.
Poll after poll show it is beloved by the vast majority, but as offshore wind grows around the world it is having a harder time keeping some of its immediate neighbours onside.
Offshore wind’s most notorious grumpy shore-dweller, of course, is one Donald Trump, who before he was US president fought a long, costly and unsuccessful campaign against turbines he deemed offensive to views from his luxury golf resort on the edge of northeast Scotland.
But for most coastal communities, it is often not the sight of the turbines, now usually far out to sea, that’s the gripe but the increasingly massive onshore electrical systems needed to bring power to shore, the construction of which can cause chaos for months on end in a tiny onshore community.
The issue’s become especially acute in eastern England, home to many of the world’s largest offshore wind projects, where the UK government is now pushing developments through on critical national infrastructure grounds in the face of swelling local opposition.
The offshore wind industry is well aware of the problem, and is swinging behind a shift to more shared power links instead of a single connection from every wind farm, so reducing disruption.
The Fishing Industry
Fishing boats have been plying their trade in the world’s seas for thousands of years, while offshore wind has been around for a couple of decades – unsurprisingly a recipe for tension, despite strenuous efforts on both sides to get along.
With potential consequences of conflict ranging from negative political fallout (in the US) to full-scale blockades (Taiwan and elsewhere), sensitivity to seafood industries has become an offshore wind article of faith, and the industry has hired specialist liaison officers and even conscripted fishing fleets into projects.
There’s also plenty of work going on to put offshore wind and aquaculture together in a mutually profitable way, from seaweed production off the Netherlands to combined offshore wind and fish farming in the seas off China.
Aviation and the Military
With safety understandably paramount, offshore wind – just like its sibling sector onshore – has to tread carefully where aviation is concerned.
One current flashpoint for the sector is a standoff between aviation authorities and the planned Guanyin offshore wind project, due to its proximity to Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport that serves the capital Taipei.
The offshore wind industry can also find itself at odds with the military. The concerns of the US Navy are seen as a major barrier to the growth of offshore wind off California, while military authorities in Sweden last year shot down (metaphorically, we should stress) a second plan for turbines off the southern province of Blekinge.
Or in this case, a lack of them. Fears are growing that offshore wind could become a victim of its own success by outpacing growth in the installation vessels without which its turbines are nothing more than impressive lumps of steel on a dockside.
Industry commentators have warned that vessel demand will outstrip supply as soon as 2024 as offshore wind farms mushroom around the world.
The number of installations isn’t the only problem – vessels themselves are also failing to keep pace with the sheer size of wind turbines the industry wants to install in the next generation of mega-offshore wind developments. The ‘supersized’ turbines of 8MW now being installed will soon seem like small fry against the 14MW-plus models that will roll off production lines in just a few years – but they all need putting in the sea.
Added to the mix are the peculiarities of national maritime regulations – for example the Jones Act, which requires goods transported between America’s ports to be carried by US-flagged ships and crewed by its citizens, and which is forcing the fledgling offshore wind industry into clever convolutions to stay compliant.
Don’t get us wrong – none of the above, alone or collectively – is going to stand in the way of offshore wind playing a decisive role in the green power revolution – and almost certainly the green hydrogen one too – and the industry has proved adept at overcoming the challenges it faces.
Some of the remaining answers could come from floating wind power, currently very much Robin to the Batman of fixed-foundation offshore wind but tipped for an equal billing at least very soon.
Turbines far from shore, and so less in conflict with fishing fleets, nesting grounds and naval bases? Floating’s got it. A different requirement where vessels are concerned, so potentially freeing-up existing installation fleets for fixed-foundation work? Yes indeed. Watch this space …