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Floating windfarms can tap offshore energy, report says

A floating wind turbine

Additional government support and continued trade links with Europe are needed to ensure the UK remains a global leader in the deployment of floating offshore wind, according to a new report.

Floating wind turbines are designed to generate power in deep ocean waters, typically where turbines fixed to the ocean floor struggle to be cost-effective. Once commercially viable, floating turbines could unlock a huge untapped wind power resource worldwide.

Without this technology, offshore wind will likely remain limited to relatively shallow waters (i.e. 60m or less), limiting the sector’s scope for growth in the future.

Globally, the floating wind market has grown from almost nothing in 2008 to 57 Megawatts in 2018. By 2030 the report estimates that internationally this could grow as high as 4.3 Gigawatts – equivalent to approximately half the UK’s current offshore wind capacity today.

Ambitious plans

There are other signs floating wind technology is moving closer to commercialisation, with the deployment of larger turbines in deeper, more remote waters. Since 2008 the average floating wind turbine size has more than tripled and their distance from shore has doubled, although their average depth has remained roughly the same.

Today, the UK leads deployment of floating offshore wind worldwide, with 56% of installed capacity. However, the UK’s lead could be challenged by the USA, Japan and France, which have ambitious plans for deployment of floating wind.

The UK’s two flagship floating wind projects to date have relied heavily on government subsidy and a supply chain mostly comprised of non-UK companies, primarily from countries within the European Single Market. No UK firm currently designs and manufacturers floating wind foundations at scale, leaving the country reliant on imported technology to deliver floating wind projects.

Looking forward, the report says the recent discontinuation of subsidies for floating wind (e.g. Renewables Obligation) and Brexit’s potential impact on the UK’s access to goods, services and labour from across the EU present a material threat to the UK’s global lead in this sector.

Support growth

Reviewing 60 floating wind project worldwide, the report ‘Offshore wind, ready to float? Global and UK trends in the floating offshore wind market’, makes five recommendations to support growth of the UK’s floating wind market:

  1. Introduce a new long-term subsidy for floating wind projects that offers a guaranteed level of subsidy, over a specified number of years. A new innovation-oriented Contracts for Difference pot for pre-commercial technologies would create such a resource.
  2. The UK and devolved governments should move to retain access to EU demonstration funding post-Brexit. If unsuccessful, their own funds must cover any shortfall, with a focus on demonstration grants and government-backed finance.
  3. Assess how Brexit will impact upon cost and delivery timelines of floating wind projects, as well as the financial performance of UK offshore wind companies. Consideration should be given to what trading arrangements will support the future growth of floating wind in the UK and Europe more widely.
  4. Fund a study to identify potential niche markets for floating wind, alongside associated cost benefits and barriers to deployment. This would inform policy design to support expansion of commercial floating wind.
  5. Support the UK to grow its domestic content of the floating wind supply chain by helping firms already operating in the wind sector, or other sectors with synergistic capabilities, to transition into it.

The research was undertaken by researchers at the University of Strathclyde’s Business School and School of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, in partnership with DNV-GL, the Wind & Marine Energy Systems CDT and SuperGen Wind.

Future expansion

Dr Matthew Hannon, Director of Research at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde, who led the research said: “There is roughly ten times the capacity of offshore wind deployed in UK waters today compared to a decade ago. However, in order for the UK to meet its highly ambitious 2050 net-zero carbon target, it is essential its offshore wind sector continues to expand over the next 30 years.

“The issue is that our current inability to generate wind power cost-effectively from deep waters presents a potential bottleneck to the future expansion of UK offshore wind, especially the deep waters surrounding Scotland. Floating wind technology presents the key to removing this constraint, by unlocking an untapped wind resource from deeper, more remote waters.

Today, Scotland leads the world in deployment of floating wind but is already facing stiff competition from other countries.

“Our report highlights how UK and Scottish government must act now to safeguard their market lead. Actions include reinstating government funds to de-risk floating wind projects and retaining strong trade links with Europe post-Brexit.”

Claire Mack, Chief Executive at Scottish Renewables said: “This new research correctly identifies that there is a very significant opportunity for floating offshore wind technology development here in Scotland, and indeed in the rest of the UK.

“Scotland’s deeper waters mean floating wind represents a natural evolution of this country’s current success in fixed offshore projects.

“There are challenges in moving any technology to a large-scale commercial footing, but the size of the global prize means investments made today in skills, infrastructure and supply chain development to support the floating offshore market could pay huge dividends in future.”

The research was supported by the University of Strathclyde, DNV GL Renewables Advisory (Zaragoza, Spain) and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) via the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Wind and Marine Energy Systems and Supergen Wind Hub. It was authored by Dr Matthew Hannon, Eva Topham, James Dixon, Dr David McMillan and Dr Maurizio Collu of the University of Strathclyde.