Boris Johnson’s plan to quadruple the size of the U.K. offshore wind industry will require $58 billion of investment and careful management of what’s a tricky building process in some of the world’s roughest waters.
The prime minister is targeting turbines with the capacity to produce 40 gigawatts of electricity by 2030, up from more than 10 gigawatts now. That would speed the nation’s shift away from fossil fuels and help it meet a goal of zeroing out carbon pollution by the middle of the century.
The difficulty is managing so many large infrastructure projects at once. Turbines these days are massive, with blades as big as a jumbo jet’s wingspan. They require highly specialized ships with giant cranes to do the installation, and developers compete to hire the few vessels that can do that work. The money needed to build all those facilities will require steady government policies that ensure the likes of Orsted A/S and Vestas Wind Systems A/S get paid regardless of political change.
“It’s hard, but it’s possible,” said Tom Harries, offshore wind analyst at BloombergNEF.
The goal Johnson set out in his speech to the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference also would maintain the lead the U.K. built in offshore wind over Denmark and Germany. The government is keen to highlight that position as the U.K. separates from the European Union and prepares to host the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow next year.
Johnson’s remarks amount to a statement of political intent, a reassurance for industries that policies on whose power feeds into the grid will be tilted in favor of renewables and especially offshore wind power. Just seven years ago, Johnson was skeptical of wind power and favored nuclear energy. Since then, the price of atomic plants has surged while the cost of turbines that work offshore plunged. That forced a rethink within government, which increasingly favors wind as a primary source of clean energy.
Reassurance is crucial for wind developers. Unlike the oil companies, where drillers probe for reservoirs and then worry later about how to sell it, wind developers generally leave investment decisions until after they’ve pinned down contracts setting a price for the electricity they will produce.
Words alone don’t guarantee that such a massive building project is delivered on time. The turbines needed to supply 40 gigawatts of power may cover an area of the sea close to 9,500 square kilometers, six times the size of greater London, according to BNEF.
Britain increasingly is competing for the resources to build offshore wind farms. As the industry spreads to new markets, the limited fleet of these specialized vessels and cranes large enough to lift massive turbines is spread thin. A delay in one project or a storm that delays a voyage from one project to the next could create a domino effect of delays.
There’s also the issue of the electric grid. Conventional power plants were built relatively close to population centers in the southern part of England. Wind farms off the east coast and in Scotland are much farther away and will require millions in new spending to improve the network.
“There’s not enough capacity in the grid near the coast to enable that much wind capacity,” said Simon Cox, offshore wind business manager at consultant DNV GL. “There’s going to need to be significant investment.”
The grid could also cause issues with keeping projects on time. To get the power to land, offshore developers have to dig up the coast line to install cables and other infrastructure to link with the grid. Residents of England’s coastal communities are starting to complain about all the disturbance. Those issues and others from the fishing industry and environmental groups could delay permitting processes to push projects to completion after the 2030 target.
The U.K.’s network operator National Grid Plc is currently consulting on a plan to link wind parks together to cut down on the industry’s impact on the countryside. It could save billions of dollars in the coming decades, but likely won’t be in place for projects that will be built this decade. U.K. regulator Ofgem has proposed spending 3 billion pounds to upgrade the grid to incorporate more renewables in the next five years.
Johnson doesn’t simply want to build up electric capacity, he wants to create jobs. Offshore wind already employs about 11,000 people, according to the industry group Renewable U.K. That’s set to rise to 27,000 full time jobs by 2030.
Still, the U.K. has lagged in offshore wind manufacturing. While it leads on capacity, it remains behind Spain, Denmark and Germany among European manufacturers of offshore wind turbine components. The massive steel foundations and platforms known as jackets for the turbines are made abroad in bigger ports.
“At the moment we can do blades, we can do cables, we can do some steel works, but we can’t do much else,” said Gary Bills, regional director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at energy consultants K2 Management. “We’re going to be the world’s leading industry with very little capability in house.”