On reflection: Give offshore projects the name they deserve

WORLDWIDE: Offshore wind farms are large enough in terms of scale and generation capacity that they merit being called power stations. And defining them as such will help attract engineering experience and draw up common standards.

(pic:Ikon Images/Alamy)
(pic:Ikon Images/Alamy)

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Wind energy, particularly offshore, is still considered to be something quite "alternative" in electricity generation. Conventional generation in all its guises, by definition, is seen as the norm, with mature technology and clearly defined industrial and regulatory frameworks already set in place. But while people are talking about the next wave of conventional generation, be it more nuclear or going down a gas or clean coal route, the fact is that little is actually being built. Although new nuclear capacity has been announced, it remains a long way off.

The conventional power industry has, of course, had many decades to improve on cost reductions. In renewables, it is currently all about finding new ways of producing power and then looking to build on a commercial scale with the consequent affordability.

Different focus

So today, you have the established, conventional power industry focusing on efficiency and cost-cutting, and renewables focusing on investment while derisking that investment. As a result, there is a common perception that one is different from the other. But actually, both are creating power plants that generate electricity, and in the end it's what matters.

It is clear that offshore developments are different from onshore wind farms, particularly in scale. Their massive size and generation capacity warrants the name of "power stations".

When you consider the gigawatts of power production offshore, particularly in the UK's Round 3 zones, it takes you very comparably into the range of the energy output that a conventional power station would be able to provide into the electricity system.

The largest Round 3 project, Dogger Bank, has an agreed target installed capacity of 9GW. Calculations from developer Forewind suggest that, with a capacity factor of 40%,this would produce around 31,500GWh a year, making it one of the largest energy projects in the world.

Compare that to the largest conventional power station in the UK, Drax in North Yorkshire, with a capacity of roughly 4GW. According to UK government figures, with a capacity factor of 50%, this would produce approximately 17,500GWh a year.

That amount of scale warrants an equal amount of engineering expertise to get behind it. There is an awful lot to be done in terms of how to do that properly, safely and cost effectively.

Focus the mind

So there is something to be said for those within the industry regarding offshore renewable energy developments as power stations. I want to see the same focus of engineering competence and commercial dedication seen in conventional generation applied to understanding how best to deliver renewable energy and make it more efficient.

If you create that mindset, it helps to focus thinking on how you would approach procurement and health and safety and, in particular, how you would collaborate with competitors on very common issues such as design and performance. In other words, the creation of common standards.

We need a more joined-up approach in the offshore wind industry, with supply chain, developers, financiers and politicians all working more closely together to identify where costs can be reduced. You need to have the common engineering and operational excellence to know where you can take out the costs, which is one of the most urgent requirements of the offshore sector.

Andrew Jamieson is the CEO of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, part of a network of technology and innovation centres established and overseen by the Technology Strategy Board

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