The UK may need to build floating wind farms at a faster pace and greater scale than expected as fixed-foundation offshore turbines in the North Sea start hitting more obstacles such as adverse environmental impacts, said the British government as it unveiled plans to include the fast-emerging technology in future renewable energy auctions.

Floating wind is for the first time being considered for inclusion in the next round of contract-for-difference (CfD) auctions for a government-backed power deal scheduled for 2021, either competing directly against fixed-foundation projects or in a separate ‘pot’ depending on the outcome of a consultation.

The prospect of floating projects competing for CfD deals in the world’s biggest offshore wind market is a big step forward for the technology, which the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) said could be needed sooner than thought if fixed-bottom starts running into problems in meeting the country’s burgeoning offshore wind ambitions.

“With the significantly higher levels of deployment needed to 2050 to meet [the UK's plans for] net zero it makes sense to consider the risk of cumulative impacts (environmental, radar interference, conflicting uses of the sea for example) which could increasingly affect the ability for fixed bottom wind deployment to be realised,” said DBEIS.

“Should such risks materialise it is likely that the commercial deployment of floating offshore wind will be needed sooner than previously anticipated and at greater levels, particularly during the 2030s.”

The UK has a target for 40GW of offshore wind deployment by 2030, raised from 30GW under the ‘sector deal’ agreed with the industry last year and a current installed base of 8.5GW.

But environmental challenges and local discontent about onshore works are already starting to impinge on massive projects underway off eastern England.

DBEIS said floating wind farms could help with its ability to deploy in deeper waters of 60-metres or more further from shore, and potentially open for development new areas off Scotland, Wales and southwest England that are currently outside the mainstream of UK offshore wind development in the North Sea: “It may allow offshore wind generation that is decoupled from the weather patterns in the North Sea to provide some insulation against the effects of intermittency on the grid.”

However, floating wind's cost-of-energy profile is still far higher than fixed-foundation projects that have driven down their prices steeply in previous UK CfD auctions.

“Given the still relatively early stage of development of the floating offshore wind sector it may be necessary to consider introducing measures over the coming years to encourage early deployment and cost reduction.

“This would allow larger scale deployment to begin during the 2030s without a deployment hiatus which could jeopardise maintaining our decarbonisation trajectory and at lower cost than would otherwise be possible,” said DBEIS officials.

Bruno Geschier, chief sales and marketing officer at technology pioneer Ideol, and co-chair of the Floating Offshore Wind Committee recently set up by industry body World Forum Offshore Wind (WFO) said: “We can see this as a positive signal that floating wind is finally being acknowledged as an important part of the future renewable energy mix,” while reserving full judgement until DBEIS makes its final decisions.

WFO managing director Gunnar Herzig said: “This is excellent news for floating offshore wind. The UK is ideally positioned to lead the commercial-scale rollout of floating offshore wind and should therefore support floating wind separately from bottom-fixed offshore wind.

“WFO’s newly created Floating Offshore Wind Committee is going to proactively support the UK and its industry in becoming a global leader in floating wind.”

The UK is already home to the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind farm, Equinor’s 30MW Hywind Scotland, with other early-stage deployments underway off Scotland – Flotation Energy’s market-leading 50MW Kincardine where a scout turbine was switched-on in 2018, as well as France and Portugal.

Though Europe, with over half of the total global floating wind capacity installed and expectations for some 320MW off its coasts  by 2021 , is the current market pace-setter, Asian plays in Japan and Korea, as well as the US Pacific, have recently heaved into view with international-scale ambitions, with California most recently seeing set-up of a coalition that is calling on the state government to support construction of 10GW of floating wind by 2045.

Equinor set out a road map in 2017, when it brought Hywind online, which forecast 12-15GW of moored units turning by 2030 at a levellised cost of energy of €40-60/MWh ($43-55/MWh), the current price of conventional offshore wind power.

Equinor head of floating wind development Sebastian Bringsværd told Recharge: “We believe this is an important first step for floating offshore wind in the UK. It is a recognition that floating offshore wind will be needed to meet UK’s net-zero target. We agree with the assessment that floating offshore wind initially should be treated differently from fixed-bottom offshore wind in the CfD allocation process.”

However, while Equinor agrees that the largest floating wind roll-out will be from the 2030s, “we are of the opinion that there are benefits of an early deployment of floating offshore wind (i.e. in the latter part of the 2020s) to ensure the necessary cost reduction and to capture the industrial benefits from being an early mover.”

The World Bank in a recent report suggests floating wind power could swiftly take up a leading role in the energy production mix of many national markets, spotlighting markets including Brazil, India, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Vietnam as having the potential to add over 2TW in the global fleet in the coming decades.

Note: Update adds quotes and details