An opportunity not to be missed

The present fall in the price of oil seems, so far, not to have prompted a backlash against "costly" renewable energy.

The last time the OPEC oil price fell dramatically, in the 1980s, the future of many renewable projects was threatened and some halted. But the world is different now, and experts such as Adam Sieminski, who heads the US Energy Information Administration, believe cheap oil will not kill off renewables, as tax incentives and renewables obligations will keep them strong. This will only continue, however, if the public and policymakers are persuaded that renewables will provide cheaper, safer energy and cut pollution.

The oil price drop should also offer industry cheaper materials and transport. Developers must grasp these opportunities to reduce their costs further and increase competitiveness.

Onshore wind has already proven competitive with other energy sources, without incentives, but offshore wind still has some way to go to match prices - even before the fall in oil costs.

Last year was a pretty good year for offshore wind in Europe, still the only region with significant growth. Despite cancellations and reductions in project sizes, those currently in development - in shallow water suitable for monopile foundations and not far from shore - have progressed, and the region now has more than 8GW of operating turbines in the water. With significant construction still under way, particularly in Germany, and with France soon to begin, that growth looks likely to have a steady future for a few years yet, with the main focus remaining in the North Sea with its vast area of shallow waters and high winds.

Here too, the slump in the price of oil has had another effect. As the next round of wind projects are installed in the North Sea, oil and gas platforms will be decommissioned. BP had scheduled a series of closures even before the recent price drop, and Shell has just begun decommissioning its Brent platform - the huge structure that gave its name to the price of crude oil. Worldwide, drilling levels have reduced and prospects for some new projects have suddenly been rendered commercially unfeasible. Newspapers are full of reports of job losses: 550 North Sea oil jobs from Shell and BP; 17,000 jobs globally from two oil-field service groups; 21,000 from the US energy sector in January alone.

Sharing

But as oil and gas platforms diminish and wind projects increase, there could be a tidy transition for vessels and skilled offshore personnel in the North Sea - or a jumble of undersupply. Decommissioning is a major project in itself, requiring vessels and personnel too. Cooperation between the industries could avoid strain on the supply chains and help maintain staffing levels.

Every opportunity to learn lessons from associated industries should be taken, to be able to demonstrate again and again to policymakers that cutting costs is not only feasible, but actually happening. They will also help improve public perception of the wind industry. Success stories, such as the exemplary health and safety standards achieved during the construction of an offshore wind project need to be told.

Historically, energy production - from coal mining to oil drilling - has been a dirty and dangerous business. But wind is judged on different, cleaner and less forgiving criteria, something the industry needs to keep in mind.

Jacki Buist is editor of Windpower Monthly

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