Huub den Rooijen: Offshore wind in a balanced energy mix

With the government re-examining the case for a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point, it’s a good time to reflect on recent breakthroughs in another low carbon technology, offshore wind.


15 August 2016

Offshore wind is already meeting around 5 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand, more than any other country globally, and is on course to meet 10 per cent by 2020. The sector has undergone a sea change over the last few years, driven by rapid advances in technology, cost, and industry’s ability to deliver on time and to budget.

In fact, over the last three years, construction costs have come down by more than 40% in the UK alone. And by 2025, industry and government expect UK prices to be comparable with new gas generation at around £85/megawatt hour (MWh).

Offshore wind is already meeting around 5 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand, more than any other country globally, and is on course to meet 10 per cent by 2020. ”

Huub den Rooijen, Head of Offshore Wind

In the Netherlands, there has been an even bigger step change. In the busy time around the EU referendum, many people will have missed the publication of their most recent offshore wind tender. Although there are differences in terms of regulation, most would agree that the Dutch are now going to be paying the equivalent of about £80/MWh for their 700 megawatt windfarm.

That is significantly lower than Hinkley Point at £92.50/MWh.

As active managers of the UK seabed, including awarding leases for offshore wind, we take a keen interest in this result. After all, the Dutch wind farm is only around 75 miles away from UK waters, and has very similar conditions like water depth, wind speeds, and distances to ports. If costs can be slashed in the Netherlands, geography tells us they can be slashed here too.

Whilst these are great developments for affordability, we mustn’t lose sight of the big picture. To play a meaningful role in the UK’s energy system, offshore wind also has to demonstrate reliability. How can industry, business and households ever rely on something as variable as the wind?

Here too, the market is evolving more rapidly than many may realise. Innovations in demand-side technology are at the early stages of enabling customers to buy power at a lower cost when there is more power available on the system, for example when the wind is blowing more strongly. And of course storage in batteries is rising fast with every new electric car that zooms out of the showrooms.

With 30 windfarms now dotted around our shores, offshore wind has now reached a level where it is pretty predictable. If the wind doesn’t blow in one, the wind blows in another, and the net effect is that the combined power output is less variable. Power systems planners love that predictability because it allows them to despatch other generating plants in time.

The technical reliability has also made huge strides. The UK has established a global first through the bench-marking initiative, SPARTA, with the involvement of all project owners and operators which is helping boost performance and safety. This comes alongside new mega-turbines, each with enough power for 10 thousand homes and more. Some components for these turbines are being manufactured in places like Hull, and the Isle of Wight, and together with the operations and maintenance work provide thousands of jobs across the country.

As the Committee on Climate Change urges Government to consider alternatives if there are delays to renewing our nuclear fleet, we should remember our seabed is a powerful energy asset. At present, we have 2200 wind turbines in operation and under construction taking up less than 1% of our total seabed. National Grid estimates that nearly half of all power could be generated from our seabed by 2030 through offshore wind, combined with tidal power lagoons and strong electrical connections to our neighbouring countries. We have an inexhaustible supply of reliable and clean power right on our doorstep, and competitively priced offshore wind now offers a mature part of the solution for the UK’s energy mix.