The UK boasts the largest installed offshore wind capacity globally, with a total of 9.8 gigawatts (GW) currently installed, a figure set to rise to 19.5GW by the mid 2020s. [1] To put this into context, this is approximately the power produced by 30 million photovoltaic solar panels and in the last decade alone, enough wind capacity has been installed to power 7.2 million homes. [2]  Given its established scale, the technology is set to play a key strategic role in facilitating the UK to attain its net-zero emissions target by 2050. 

The foundational document of the government’s current offshore policy was the Offshore Wind Sector Deal, published during March 2019. The report established a notably ambitious partnership between industry and government to augment the competitiveness and productivity of UK-based companies in the sector. 

A fundamental facet of meeting these aims is innovation in offshore wind. An eponymous Offshore Wind Innovation Group, consisting of public-sector, industry, as well as academic representatives, has already further developed technology roadmaps on electrical infrastructure, turbines. 

Arguably a by-product of innovation and product enhancement over recent years is a reduction in the costs of offshore farms. The Contract for Difference auction for 5.5 GW of new offshore wind capacity in 2019, for instance, yielded prices approximately 65% lower than projects just four years earlier. [3] 

However, despite the robust infrastructural capacity which has already been established by the UK, the ability to rely on wind power to meet energy needs is somewhat questionable. For instance, due to weaker gales in the North Sea, wind currently supplies merely 7% of the UK’s energy needs, a precipitous decline from the 25% it generated (on average) in 2020. [4] Hence, although this form of renewable energy may be free of carbon emissions and inexpensive to harness, it may not be sufficiently reliable to be a panacea to solve the country’s energy issues. 

Arguably a consequence of such fickle offshore power, there have been several regressive steps made in the UK’s transition to more renewable sources of fuel. To meet this excess demand, coal and gas-fired have been bought online to meet the shortfall. As a result, gas now constitutes more than 50% of the electricity generated in the UK, and coal has reached 3% of the UK’s energy makeup. [5] 

It should be kept in mind that there is a looming deadline for all coal plants to be closed by 2024, meaning that the unreliability of offshore-wind power may not be able to be curtailed in this way for some time to come. 

How to enable wind power to become more versatile and reliable? Hydrogen may be the answer; the colourless gas can be a mechanism for storing energy and act as an effective energy carrier, as it can be stored easily and has a higher energetic density than batteries. As Calado and Casto (2021) suggest in a paper for the journal of Applied Sciences, the advantages above may aid to curtail the current shortfalls of offshore technologies, such as transmission losses or the notably high installation costs of said electrical transmission systems. [6]

So, the UK may have a foundational infrastructural base in offshore wind which may allow it to become a leader in the sector and capitalise on its strategic effect in aiding the country to meet its net-zero 2050 target. Nevertheless, key logistical and technological hindrances remain, with the unreliability of wind patterns being the predominant. A new technology to watch in the industry is floating wind farms, which consist of turbines fixed to buoyant platforms which can be moved from place to place. With Boris Johnson having already set a 1GW floating offshore target for 2030, the sector may be set to experience considerable growth in the decade to come. [7]

Written by Alexander McFadzean, Somerville College. 

Sources: 

[1]https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/offshore-wind-sector-deal/offshore-wind-sector-deal-one-year-on

[2]https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt

[3]https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/offshore-wind-sector-deal/offshore-wind-sector-deal-one-year-on

[4]https://fortune.com/2021/09/16/the-u-k-went-all-in-on-wind-power-never-imaging-it-would-one-day-stop-blowing/

[5] Calado,G.;Castro,R. Hydrogen Production from Offshore Wind Parks: Current Situation and Future Perspectives. Appl. Sci. 2021, 11,5561. https://doi.org/10.3390/ app11125561.

[6]https://www.ft.com/content/49085cd7-fe54-4b2d-a24f-29448f0c784f

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