Flat-out rivalry is a fool's errand

With more than 2,000 offshore turbines installed and generating electricity, the offshore wind sector has come a long way since the Vindeby wind farm entered operation in the Baltic Sea in 1991. The industry's ability to deliver power generation capacity at scale, under hostile marine conditions, is no longer in doubt.

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But despite this considerable success, the vexed issue of cost remains and a grand bargain has been struck with governments - we, the offshore wind energy community, deliver cost reduction and they support the market. If costs do not fall, there will be no market. Cost is the enemy and to tackle it properly requires many things: innovation, investment and a supportive policy landscape. But most fundamentally, it requires a change in mindset.

Exam room mentality

We need to leave behind the exam-room mentality where all the industry players are working on their own, jealously shielding their answers from the inquisitive gaze of everyone else.

We all know what the question is: "How does one build an offshore wind farm cheaply and safely?" But instead of recognising that the answer would be much easier if we worked on it together, learning lessons from those who have gone before, we create silos, keeping our thinking in our own companies and attempt to do it alone, while occasionally trying to peek over our competitors' shoulders to see what they are doing.

There must come a point in time, as there did in the oil and gas, power-generation and telecoms sectors, when we realise that flat-out rivalry is a fool's errand. If we are not careful this misguided approach might lead to higher prices, greater technical problems and offshore wind knocking on the politicians' door for more money.

As an industry, we should have the confidence to acknowledge what has gone wrong to give us a better chance of avoiding the same mistakes. The cliche "those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it" rings particularly true in the offshore wind sector, especially with regard to the cabling problems that continue to dog the industry.

We need to overcome our fear of ignominy and be more open about what we are doing. Offshore wind is new and no one has ever done what we are trying to do. We will not get it right at the first attempt. The mature thing to do, the right thing to do, is to discuss it; to collaborate so that we, as an industry, can make good on the global potential.

Cooperation applies equally to benchmarking of performance. Yes, it is nerve-wracking opening up your product to people who may well be competitors. But everyone benefits. You know how you are doing and where you need to improve, and offshore wind as a whole benefits from improved standards and lower financing costs. Gas turbine manufacturers do it, so why can't we?

Embrace collaboration

A great example of collaboration is provided by the recent German standardisation of 900MW substations and cables. It will be interesting to see whether the cost benefits drive wind farms elsewhere to this substation size. Standardisation is never easy but offers real cost-reduction benefit and the precedent shows what can happen when regulators and industry work together.

There is great potential for further collaboration across borders. We all have to cut costs and the UK, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and Finland each have their own cost-reduction programmes. Surely this situation will lead to unnecessary duplication. If we could instead think in terms of comparative advantage and identify who is best placed to deliver the respective cost-reduction measures and coordinate them across Europe, we would have a much more effective approach. EU-wide industry collaboration like this would be a sign of true maturity. Beyond Europe, the recent announcements in Japan, the US and China show the huge global potential of this sector.

While it is easy to talk about the benefits of cooperation, we should not be in any doubt that such a combined effort will be hard to deliver. But these are all things that those of us who want a bright future for offshore wind can do for ourselves.

We just need to take a deep breath, think about the bigger picture and start talking to each other. "This is what we learned... " is the first step towards a truly mature, cost-competitive industry. It is nearly within our grasp.

Paul Reynolds is offshore wind strategy consultant at GL Garrad Hassan

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