SEA CHANGE

Fleets of incredibly large wind turbines could produce a third of all UK power by 2030

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Energy Shocks
Obsession
Energy Shocks

The UK has the biggest offshore wind industry in the world, by far.

But if predictions from some wind farm builders come true, it will become even more enormous—both in its capacity to produce power and by sheer size of the machines involved—over the next 15 years. The country has built 3.7 gigawatts of offshore wind power generating capacity in the last five years alone: enough to power three million homes, according to Benj Sykes, who leads asset management at Dong Energy’s wind business for the UK, Germany, and Denmark.

He told Quartz that there were enough projects in the pipeline to more than double that amount to between 10 and 11 gigawatts by 2020. Ten years after that, the company envisages wind turbines will have a capacity of 30 gigawatts, generating 35% of the UK’s electricity.

That’s an “aspirational number” Sykes said, but it’s achievable, so long as costs continue to fall, he said.

The scale of some of these projects is hard to conceive. Take, for example, a construction project in Liverpool Bay scheduled to begin next year. It will use 8-megawatt turbines that are so massive they cannot be transported over land, only by ship.

“I would have said a year ago that 6-megawatt turbines are huge, and they are very big,” said Sykes (They’re a bit taller than London’s famous “gherkin” skyscraper). But the new 8-megawatt machines dwarf even them. On the Liverpool Bay turbines, Sykes explains, “each [rota] blade is 80 meters long, and you can drive a London double-decker bus inside the blade.”

Meanwhile Statoil, a Norwegian oil company, recently announced that it would be building the first floating wind farm off Peterhead in Scotland. Floating turbines use a younger technology than those mounted on huge concrete pillars built on the seabed. But they have multiple advantages, including lower installation costs, the possibility of using them in deeper waters, and the fact that they could be towed into place, and to shore for maintenance.

There is one prerequisite for wind farming to continue to proliferate, however, and that’s stability.

Because renewables industries are young and the technology is expensive, government support has been necessary to get them off the ground. Moreover, massive infrastructure building projects like offshore wind can only attract the investment necessary in regimes with stable regulatory structures.

The UK government reiterated its support of offshore wind on Wednesday—but it has a poor recent track record in supporting renewables. Subsidies and support for onshore wind, solar, and biomass were withdrawn earlier this year, in some cases with only days of warning, leaving the industries bruised.

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