Iberdrola set to be serious about offshore

As Iberdrola's first offshore wind project nears completion, the developer's offshore chief, Jonathan Cole, talks about joint ventures, technological progress, renewables targets and the overwhelming need for the sector to cut its costs.

Jonathan Cole: ““We knew the technology wasn’t ready… but we anticipated a much faster rate of development”
Jonathan Cole: ““We knew the technology wasn’t ready… but we anticipated a much faster rate of development”

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Jonathan Cole, the 36-year-old Scot who heads the offshore division of Spanish wind power developer Iberdrola through its Scottish Power Renewables (SPR) subsidiary, does not mince his words. Where other industry chiefs may load every sentence with provisos and prevarications, saying very little at great length, he makes his opinions and observations crystal clear.

Cole is in an upbeat mood when we talk, but then he has some positive news to communicate. The first handful of turbines on Iberdrola's first offshore wind farm, West of Duddon Sands off north-west England's coast in the Irish Sea, had just started generating electricity. When completed later this year, the 389MW project, a 50/50 joint venture between Iberdrola and Dong Energy, will have 108 Siemens 3.6MW turbines producing power. "I think we've done really well to get to this stage on budget and on schedule," Cole says. "It hasn't been easy. We've had to deal with quite a high tidal range and some difficult weather, but we've been making great progress."

The European wind industry in general, and the offshore sector in particular, have not had much good news to report recently, as Cole acknowledges when I ask him to sum up 2013 from Iberdrola's perspective.

"It was a mixed year, which sometimes causes us to lose sight of some of the achievements," he says. "I think 2013 would be categorised by the high level of political and legislative uncertainty, together with a still depressed economic climate. But we feel we're quite well placed for the future. We've diversified our business model and most of our investment has been outside the eurozone, from the UK to South America."

He points to a number of onshore projects that were successfully completed last year, including the 136MW Harestanes wind farm in Scotland and the repowering of Carland Cross in Cornwall, south-west England, which was SPR's first operational wind farm in the UK when it came online in 1992. Now it is the company's first repowering project, its 15 Vestas 400kW turbines having been replaced by ten Gamesa 2MW units.

Offshore pullout

We turn to less positive developments, specifically Iberdrola's decision late last year to stop work on the 1.8GW Argyll Array offshore project off Scotland's west coast. That announcement came only a few days after RWE Innogy dropped its 1.2GW Atlantic Array proposal and shortly before the same company scaled-down its Triton Knoll plans. The UK may be the world's leader in offshore wind, but the cancellation and downsizing of so many projects in quick succession made the outlook for future growth look anything but optimistic.

"The big issue with Argyll Array was the volcanic rock on the seabed," says Cole. "It was simply impossible to drive piles into it. The sea there is very energetic and the conditions are very challenging. All current foundation techniques were going to be a struggle.

"When we set out on a feasibility study in 2009 we knew the technology wasn't ready for a project of this kind, but we anticipated a much faster rate of development. Then we discovered that the area had very large numbers of basking sharks, much more than we originally thought. We had to be environmentally responsible and we had to consider the needs of local stakeholders."

What foundation technology would make the project viable? Was Cole hinting at floating foundations? "No, we weren't really thinking about floating solutions," he says. "We need something similar in concept to a jacket but easier and less expensive to install."

Cole argues that the technological progress the industry needs to develop offshore wind further from shore and in deeper waters cannot be achieved in the research laboratories alone. Actually building wind projects in the more difficult areas and conditions, overcoming the challenges one by one, learning from the experience and then applying that to the next project, is imperative. "The rate of deployment has a direct effect on the rate of technological progress," he says. "If the rate of deployment slows, so does the rate of progress."

Joint ventures

He also points to the benefits provided by joint ventures, like the 50/50 arrangement with Dong for West of Duddon Sands. "Obviously it helps in sharing risks and costs, and diversifying the portfolio," he says. "But joint ventures give parties more expertise and they provide the opportunities to develop good practice. When you bring together two formidable companies, like us and Dong, into one partnership, that can only be a good thing.

Dong is not the only offshore developer Iberdrola is working with. The first phase of the East Anglia zone development off England's east coast, with a potential for 1.2GW of installed capacity, is a 50/50 joint venture with Swedish utility Vattenfall. The 500MW Saint-Brieuc project off Brittany in northern France is split 70/30 between Iberdrola and French developer Eole RES.

Different partners can lead to different turbine suppliers. While West of Duddon Sands uses Siemens units, Areva's 5MW turbine has been selected for Saint-Brieuc. No turbine supplier has yet been announced for East Anglia, although the consent application envisages machines of between 5MW and 8MW, which suggests Vestas could be in the running. Iberdrola also has close links with Spanish turbine maker Gamesa.

So what does the company look for in a turbine supplier? "The key thing, on the technical side, is to assess that they are fit for purpose," says Cole. "But the most important thing is the relationship, creating a common understanding of what we're both trying to achieve, having clear goals, but in a flexible way.

It's a complex business. You have to juggle long lead times with improvements in technology and changes in regulations."

Rethink targets

We move the conversation on to the European Commission's announcement of 2030 targets for cutting greenhouse emissions and producing power from renewable sources. Many companies and bodies in the wind industry have been disappointed by the EC's decision not to set country-specific binding targets for renewables. EWEA chief executive Thomas Becker has been a particularly outspoken critic. Where does Cole stand on that issue?

"Our position is that setting targets on emission reductions needs a much more uniform approach about how targets are set and monitored," he says. "But we would question the need for a renewables target. It's the means to an end and it's important not to confuse the two. Renewables targets can distort the market, pushing the wrong technology or the wrong projects. We think it should be up to national governments to decide how they meet the (emission reduction) targets, based on their own needs. The UK won't tackle things the same way other countries do. They all have different requirements."

If Cole is generally optimistic and positive about the future of wind power through the interview, he doesn't shy away from concluding with some strong words of warning. When I ask him what he thinks are the biggest obstacles to the industry in Europe, he says: "If you had asked me before today I would have said the regulatory and political uncertainty in investment and developing the supply chain.

"But industry and governments need to put that behind them now. The biggest obstacle now is cost reduction. We simply have to take 30% out of (offshore) costs, the sooner the better. If we don't solve that problem, then wind won't be a major player in the energy market. Cost reduction is absolutely essential. We need to make bold choices about which sites we develop, and which technology we choose. And everyone has to get on board."

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