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Collaboration is vital for offshore future

The European wind industry continues to suffer from political indecision and backtracking on subsidies. The offshore sector, where high costs remain a thorny issue, is particularly affected.

Proof of that was supplied by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) at its recent biennial offshore conference in Frankfurt, where a report finally confirmed something that most industry observers have suspected for some time: that Europe's 2020 offshore target of 40GW is simply not feasible. Around 27GW is a realistic objective, the EWEA report said.

Yet the mood at Frankurt was largely positive, perhaps because the industry is in a position to improve its lot even if it does not expect the perfect political support.

Investment harnessed

It is widely agreed that Europe's target to reach 20% of renewable energy by 2020 helped harness the investment that enabled the continent's remarkable growth in offshore wind - from about 1.5GW in 2008 to nearly 6.5GW today. Now the industry hopes that setting a further target for 2030 will have the same effect. EWEA is lobbying to achieve an ambitious - and binding - renewables target of over 30%.

Political support will help, but subsidies are only a stop-gap solution until the real issue of cost is addressed. If the offshore industry can drive down the price of energy generation to EUR100/MWh then investors will come. The good news is that there is plenty the industry can do to make this happen.

Offshore wind has been an adventure in technology with major leaps in development from the first 450kW turbines installed offshore in 1991 to the 6MW Alstom Haliade turbine recently installed outside Ostend Harbour in Belgium, and the promise of even bigger, more powerful machines to come. These technology leaps have helped reduce the levelised cost of energy by 40% per decade.

The industry must look to every part of the process and technology to continue this trend - turbines, supply chain, vessels and the service sector. This will require partnerships, standardisation of processes, and an open and transparent approach.

It won't be easy. Competitors have a natural reluctance to share their goodies, as EWEA CEO Thomas Becker noted. But there are some things that can be sensibly shared. Standardise the interface between the various components, share the safest way to connect a boat to a turbine, set a standard for all regions. Involve parties from an early stage.

The new joint venture between Vestas and Mitsubishi to develop the offshore V164 8MW turbine will not start construction until it has sufficient unconditional offers to enable serial production. What constitutes "sufficient" is not yet clear, but the new company says it has been inviting potential customers to become involved early on in the development process. This is a first for Vestas and a sign of collaboration to achieve better results right through to operation.

Jonathan Cole, Iberdrola's offshore managing director, summed it up at Frankfurt, when asked what the wind power sector might look like ten years ahead. "Unless offshore wind is 40% cheaper in a decade it won't matter what the sector looks like, because offshore won't be part of it."

Jacki Buist is editor of Windpower Monthly

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