The giant Equinor-SSE 3.6GW Dogger Bank offshore wind mega-project stole the headlines when it snapped up the lion’s share of the UK’s recent contracts for difference (CfD) auction – and left developers including Iberdrola empty-handed. But the Spanish utility is happy to let scale do the talking as it moves ahead with plans to bolt together three of its East Anglia projects as a 3.1GW complex for the merchant market to come, says its global offshore wind chief.

Jonathan Cole sees the £6.5bn ($8.5bn) East Anglia Hub (EAH), which rolls the previously separate EA1 North, and EA2 and EA3 projects in the southern North Sea into one with the in-production EA1 wind farm – as one of a new breed of “super-scale” developments that will be key to Europe’s decarbonisation plans, whether its power production is sold “via government-backed contracts or private power sales arrangements”.

“Our firm view has always been that scale really matters in offshore wind and our pipeline of projects has been designed on that basis,” he told Recharge, “with a big footprint in the southern North Sea [along with EA Hub there, it has the operational West of Duddon Sands wind farm off northwest England], another in the Baltic [where it has the Wikinger and Baltic Eagle projects] and a third off the US east coast [where subsidiary Avangrid is advancing the Vineyard Wind and Kitty Hawk developments].

“We have always believed in that concept. And when we were looking at EA3 [after it missed out on the CfD] and comparing it to EA2 and 1 North we saw this big opportunity to accelerate these two and bring them all together into one super-scale project, and really improve the overall economics as well as the operational set-up, and really drive up industrialisation while driving down the costs.

This is exactly what the UK needs to reach its net-zero 2050 target.

“This is exactly what [the UK] needs to reach its net-zero 2050 target and build 75GW [of offshore wind plant] and Europe needs to decarbonise at the pace it needs. These super-scale projects are vital for the decarbonisation effort.”

A recent report from industry advocacy body WindEurope calculated offshore wind power could carry Europe to carbon-neutrality by mid-century, expanding to an installed base of 450GW and meeting 30% of the continent’s power demand. But this would require gearing up the 3GW being built each year now to over 20GW a year from 2030 and a capital spend rising rise from €6bn in 2020 to €45bn per year by 2030 to reach a fossil fuel competitive sub-€50/MHh levellised cost of energy ( LCOE).

EA Hub, as a project being developed by the largest offshore wind power operator in the world, is “absolutely [a model for] a new generation of offshore energy plant” for Europe, says Cole.

“Wind farms this size give reassurance to the governments that offshore wind is capable of being the backbone of a modern, smart electricity system. I think it would been much harder for the likes of the UK government to set that 2050 net-zero carbon target if it didn’t have line-of-sight to these massive scale, low-cost offshore wind projects that can power the economy in the future at an affordable price.”

“Because reaching this sort of build-out [of 450GW] is not going to happened incrementally. You need a regulatory and planning system that is streamlined and many more of this super-scale size of project being given a route to market and quickly [wired into] a centrally planned meshed grid.”

Project clustering such as is being done with the three EA projects is not just “plainly logical” for lowering the LCOE that can be achieved from an offshore wind zone through scale of plant and shared export lines, says Cole, it also feeds into the development of a pan-European supply chain hungry for long-term visibility on orders.

He notes that Iberdrola is “very actively now in the market, engaging the supply chain, doing the engineering and procurement activity, and looking to make some big supplier decisions over the course of the next year” for EAH, with an eye on leveraging the giant project with a continuous installation programme” from 2022.

“Part of this is about utilisation of fabrication facilities and so on, which is down to scale and is important, but also by getting orders of that magnitude [for a multi-gigawatt project] with a certain delivery [date] allows them to introduce new technologies into the market.

It’s about buying turbines that are bigger and better than anything seen in the market.

“So, with turbines, for instance, it's not just about a huge batch of turbines, it’s about buying truly state-of-the-art turbines that are bigger and better than anything seen in the market – and are needed to meet the demands of a subsidiary-free market.”

Cole says: “If this industry is doing tomorrow what it did today, it will be behind the curve. What you need to be doing is anticipating well in advance [to get to sub-€50/MWh].”

The turbines that will be at the heart of EAH when it comes online in 2026 are expected to have larger nameplates – “14MW for certain, maybe bigger” – than the biggest that will be market-ready when an OEM is chosen as a preferred supplier next year, he notes, pointing to units ordered from MHI Vestas for Baltic Eagle that have “grown” since the deal was announced in 2018 from 8MW V164s to 9.5MW V174s in the interim.

“Assuming you’ve factored it in to everything from the permitting to the foundations and so on, we are completely comfortable with that.”

Set in water depths of 40-45 metres, EAH is expected to use XL monopile foundations for the turbines “depending on the final size of the turbine and seabed conditions”, with power sent to shore via three distinct export lines, with EA3 on a high voltage direct current (HVDC) cable woven into the existing infrastructure for EA1, and EA1 North and EA2 using HV alternating current lines “built together to minimise work and cost”, says Cole.

Online, EAH will supply around 3-4% of total UK electricity demand, but its value to Britain’s industrial energy transition will stretch far beyond domestic power production, he underlines.

“The industry as a whole is going to ramp up significantly and the ‘cake’, if you like, is going to get enormous, so the slice of the cake that different countries’ supply chains gets is going to get much bigger too. Grow the industry regionally, globally, and it follows that investment and jobs will come along with this growth.”

Nor is this just “heavy steel” construction yards that will fabricate the offshore structures and the service sector that will run the operations and maintenance, Cole adds, not least “the parts of the supply chain that are the higher-end of the engineering spectrum, those linked to digitalisation, automation and advanced manufacturing – which are also exportable and will generate tens of thousands of high-skill, high-paid jobs”.

“Digitalisation is where the next major advance in cost-reduction comes,” he adds. “And Iberdrola as the largest operator of wind turbines globally has among the greatest visibility of turbine data of anyone, so it follows that EAH will be a digital flagship of correlating this sort of offshore wind data to operations and associated cost-reduction – of moving the industry toward a digital concept where a wind farm will be run in a condition-based rather time-based way.”

Projects of the size of EAH, Cole concludes, will lay the foundation for offshore wind to take up the mantle of an energy resource that – as was scoped out in the International Energy Agency’s first standalone report on the sector – could eventually be generating enough energy to power the planet many times over, and at the same time underpin a global clean-energy “industrial transition”.

“We talk about the Energy Transition being powered by offshore wind but our industry is also kick-starting an industrial transition, in the UK, in Europe, and now worldwide, as we move economies from being fossil-fuel based to clean-energy economy. Projects like [EAH] will by design and by execution help make both these transitions – in a fair way that leaves no one behind as we decarbonise.”