Floating offshore wind: huge UK opportunity… but we must act now

ORE Catapult’s Floating Offshore Wind Centre of Excellence celebrated its first birthday this month. Windpower Monthly caught up with the centre’s programme manager, Ralph Torr, to find out more.

Hywind Scotland (pic: Equinor)
Hywind Scotland (pic: Equinor)

Floating offshore wind could create 17,000 jobs and generate £33.6 billion by 2050. It will also play a significant role in decarbonising the economy as part of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s wider ambitions: offshore wind to power every home in the country.

But to meet that promise, build out needs to accelerate, costs must reduce and the industry must find innovations in manufacturing, installation and O&M. And that is precisely why ORE Catapult created the Floating Offshore Wind Centre of Excellence in October 2019. 

Ralph Torr (pictured), the centre’s programme manager, explains the state of the play…

What role will floating offshore wind play in the delivery of a net zero UK?
Floating wind will play a key role. The floating technology unlocks a huge area of the sea that we currently don’t have access to with fixed bottom turbines. Not only does that add to the total amount of offshore wind we can build, but it allows us to build it in much more geographically diverse areas. 

This has technical, social and economic benefits. Technically, it distributes offshore wind generation capacity more widely, minimising broader energy systems costs through less storage, less variability of supply and higher capacity factors. 

Socially, it allows the economic benefits of floating offshore wind to reach more widely across the country, creating long term, skilled, green jobs in these regions. 

And economically, it offers the most cost effective method of renewable energy generation in large areas of our offshore environment, as well as making a strong contribution to economic growth in the UK over the next 30 years.

Does spreading the development geographically also help with development consents?
If we can have the same amount of capacity but distributed more broadly, we can select places that are lower impact: areas that have lower ornithological activity; lower visual impact etc. We can’t do that with fixed bottom turbines because sea depth limits us. 

What kind of jobs will floating offshore wind lead to?
Floating offshore wind requires broadly similar skills and experience as for fixed-bottom turbines. But there are several different features, such as the mooring and anchoring, dynamic cabling systems, and the sub-structure construction. 

The design and manufacture of those is a lot closer to the inherent skills and capability of the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry. In the context of transitioning skills from oil and gas into renewable energy, floating offshore wind is a great opportunity

The UK also has a lot of experience in servicing: installation, operations and maintenance. With floating offshore wind, these activities can be more complex, the units are physically bigger. There is a lot of work needed and huge opportunities for innovation. This gives the UK supply chain a chance to develop products and services that reduce cost but are suited to key export markets. At the very least, the UK needs to maximise the opportunity in existing areas of strength.

But there are still areas where the UK needs to invest significantly, to develop capability and infrastructure to maximise GVA. We need to invest in the short-term with a view to maximising that long-term opportunity. 

A good example of this is large-scale, highly-automated manufacturing, handling and assembly of large (steel and composite) components. This is not something we do at the moment at scale, so if the UK wants to make inroads in terms of increasing UK content in UK projects, we need to take a chunk of the fabrication work for these projects, and both public and private sector need to invest. This shall take an industrial-strategy approach and real ambition from both government and sector to deliver.

Hywind Scotland (pic: Equinor)

How is the Centre of Excellence going to push forward its agenda?
We aim to play a coordinating role in the industry, to pull together and augment the good work that’s already going on. The centre has engaged a number of industry and academic partners, and we’re also forming partnerships with government, devolved government and regulators. 

We have developed a portfolio of projects that meet the needs of these partners, helps them understand the opportunities and challenges, and how best we can address them.

We’ve designed our projects to help developers, stakeholders and the supply chain to build relationships really early on, which is important in reducing costs and delivering projects effectively.

Are the international opportunities for the UK’s floating offshore wind market?
There’s a lot of interest in floating offshore internationally, in terms of its potential to support the delivery of net zero ambitions and its potential to drive economic growth. 

The UK is in a great position because we already have a good level of deployment of floating wind turbines. But time is of the essence – if the UK can develop the industry rapidly, we will maintain our position as global leader, which will attract project developers, and investment into research and development and the supply chain. 

If we take a more measured approach to growth, we would lose the proportion of the economic opportunity associated with the market that moves forward first. If the UK is at the front, that’s a great place for our supply chain when we’re looking to export products and services. 

How can government support the floating offshore wind industry? 
The prime minister’s speech at the party conference gave us a huge confidence boost in terms of investment and ambition for generation capacity. But if we look at the investment needed and the timescales the private sector looks for, we need to see a range of tangible enabling actions, policies and investments in the coming months and years. The more visibility of these, the better. 

The next year is all about taking where we are at the moment, and the good will in government and industry, and trying to turn that into a tangible and ambitious action plan for floating offshore wind in the UK. Effective collaboration between industry, stakeholders and government is key to the success of the floating offshore wind industry in the UK.

In an effort to boost the UK’s floating offshore wind industry, ORE Catapult has established the Floating Offshore Wind Centre of Excellence (FOW CoE) to develop an internationally recognised initiative to reduce the cost of energy from floating wind. The Centre will accelerate the build-out of floating farms, create opportunities for the UK supply chain, and drive innovations in manufacturing, installation and O&M. The CoE is a collaborative programme with industry, academic and stakeholder partners. Find out more.

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