Now, with the UK setting itself up to become home to a world-leading offshore wind industry, we have an excellent opportunity to regain our position. With relatively shallow water and strong winds we have all the right conditions to see the market really take off here. But offshore wind is an entirely different animal to onshore, so this will not happen unless we first acquire the right tools and materials for the job, and the UK has the chance to blaze a trail in developing this technology.
Achieving the offshore goals the UK has set itself will entail establishing, out at sea, what essentially amounts to a number of very large power stations - something that has never been tried on this scale before or in this environment. Ensuring the right technology is therefore of paramount importance. The individual components used in these stations, the turbines, will be much larger than anything on land, because there are fewer constraints at sea and larger turbines are more cost-efficient. And to get the power back to land, transmission and distribution systems are also a major consideration from a technology point of view in order to ensure a reliable supply of power into the grid and a good return for the wind farm owner.
The main consideration in the development of these new technologies will be to ensure that they all function reliably as a unit. The real emphasis of research now is to understand, before it is built, how an offshore wind farm will operate reliably at a system level. It is one thing to exhaustively test a turbine before it is deployed, but if you haven't thought through and understood in advance how the plant needs to be operated and maintained it could quickly grind to a halt, wiping out the chance of a decent return on investment.
This requires a whole new design methodology, and a key area we are looking into at Narec is condition-based monitoring. Using existing operations and maintenance (O&M) data, we are looking to establish how to put in place simple systems to monitor a plant and keep it running at an optimum level in all conditions, without over-swamping it with technology. Developing the right technology for offshore wind farms is not just about scaling up designs for existing onshore turbines; it's about having a sound O&M strategy and lifetime strategy to avoid locking costs into the project from the outset.
What Narec and other researchers are ultimately aiming to do is to de-risk offshore technology and build the sort of market confidence sought by potential investors. In a similar way, research and development has a central role to play in influencing another key component of the successful development of an offshore wind farm, namely the UK's complex consenting procedures.
Streamlining this process will be critical in speeding up development of the offshore market so any technology that can help with this is likely to be well received. Some areas to which research could contribute include the development of systems for monitoring the effect of large schemes on the marine environment and for mitigating their effect on radar to assuage the concerns of airports. Another is measures to bring on board communities affected by wind farms, such as research into fisheries. It is this Ôsofter' side that often gets forgotten in research programmes, but will be crucial in convincing the right people of the benefits of an offshore wind industry.
The other main area requiring development in support of the UK's offshore ambitions is skills. Over the next decade we will have to train tens of thousands of people to work in the sector. Innovation has its part to play here, and Narec is already looking at some elements of the skills sector. It is clear that in order to keep up with a fast-moving industry, we are going to have to provide not just the right learning and skills now, but a framework for the future to ensure the workforce will be able to stay abreast of innovation. Keeping up with best practice and updating that skills set over the next ten years will require a real effort.
Of course, none of the necessary research will happen without the right level of funding. The private sector is already beginning to respond to the level of opportunity in the UK, with the likes of Clipper and Mitsubishi announcing plans to open factories and test plants here. Another welcome step is the recent £18.5 million government grant to Narec to help establish an offshore test site at Blyth, Northumberland. But we need to go further.
If as a nation we want to achieve excellence in offshore wind, we have to invest in all parts of the supply chain for R&D - revenue-type funding that will ensure that Narec and others in the research community have the necessary resources and people focused on the right kind of activities to support the industry.
One model we would like to see emerging is the national centres of excellence so effective in countries such as the US and Germany in developing new technologies for particular industries. Such centres, also known as technology innovation centres, were advocated in a recent report carried out for the former UK business secretary Lord Mandelson and would be jointly funded by the state, commercial revenue and commercialisation of intellectual property arising from research.
Business will of course tactically and strategically invest in R&D, but will not necessarily share its findings, leading to some reinvention of the wheel. We are great believers in the syndicated R&D approach, and see the centre of excellence route as the most effective way of ensuring best practice is shared throughout the industry.
Alan Lowdon and Stephen Wilson are respectively director of technology and innovation, and director of wind and marine at Narec in Blyth, Northumberland
AREAS IN WHICH THE UK LEADS THE FIELD R&D EXPERTISE FOR OFFSHORE APPLICATIONS
- Offshore structures: because of our historic oil and gas sector, a strong knowledge set for UK companies is offshore structures. We are now starting to see their involvement in the wind sector, in manufacturing and handling offshore equipment.
- O&M: expertise and knowledge gained from the UK's early lead in installing and running offshore wind farms means our expertise and knowledge in this area is likely to be an exportable commodity.
- Fluid dynamics: getting to grips with the interactions between a number of towers in an array before it is built is a big challenge. We have the necessary world-class expertise in computational fluid mechanics and dynamics to blaze a trail.
- Product design: we have strong skills in various universities that will enable us to develop new designs for components such as blades. This will extend to condition-based monitoring as well; we have a highly developed understanding of the system interaction between the component parts of the power station out at sea.