As government leaders meet at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, they are near a coastline that boasts some of the most advanced offshore wind developments in the world. Offshore wind has emerged as one of the cornerstones of the low carbon economy transition and a key contributor to the net zero goals that leaders are discussing during the meeting. Estimates suggest that 1400-2000 GW of offshore wind will need to be deployed by 2050 to maintain a 1.5°C warming scenario1. That means over the next 30 years, a 40-fold increase on the current 35 GW of operational projects2 is required—a tall order for an industry that is itself only 30 years old.
How can we accelerate the development and deployment of offshore wind to help deliver our net zero ambitions? Six key actions can be taken across all aspects of the process.
Design informed and adaptable policy
Effective policy design is the foundation of creating a sustainable and long-lasting offshore wind industry. For offshore wind development to scale rapidly, policy and legislation are needed that incorporate offshore wind now and into the future. Long-term certainty needs to be balanced with flexibility to allow the industry to evolve, without having to redesign policy or implement new measures at each turn. Moreover, policy should be designed in collaboration with the industry, accepting that early changes may not please everyone and can be improved over time.
There is much that new and existing markets alike can learn from mature and successful offshore wind policies. For example, the Netherlands has been effective in setting clear targets that are captured in legislation, and then delivering on the promise through regularly scheduled offshore wind auctions. The approach to introduce 10-year roadmaps and targets helps give the industry visibility, which has in-turn resulted in widespread interest and low costs, with the latest auctions receiving multiple ‘zero subsidy’ bids.
Undertake comprehensive and early marine spatial planning
Efficient and organized marine spatial planning processes are essential for accelerating development timescales. If offshore wind projects are located in the right places to start with, and stakeholders are on board, this can serve as a catalyst in the development process. While ideally this planning should be done centrally within government, industry can support this by undertaking appropriate diligence on greenfield sites during site selection and ensuring environmental and social factors are considered alongside economic and commercial drivers. Good data is essential, and often central government must provide access to data if they are not performing the planning themselves. Development frameworks to support offshore wind site selection around the world can help ensure all technical, commercial and environmental factors are considered and that sites are sensitively located within the context of the market.
Ensure flexible offtake options
Some of the biggest shifts in the offshore wind industry in recent years have been the diversity of offtake (i.e. route to market) options that are now on the table for developers. Whilst the industry matured, the majority of projects relied on some form of government-funded mechanism guaranteeing a minimum price level for power. While these are still required for many new and existing markets alike, investors have shown appetite for a greater variety of ways in which to secure a route for the electricity to get to market, such as directly supplying data centres, selling on the open market or converting the electricity into other forms of energy that can be stored or transported. The ability to maintain this flexibility going forward will be crucial, to ensure the best fit can be found for the offshore wind industry in each market.
Maintain clarity around permitting and environmental impact assessment (EIA)
One of the longest parts of the development process can be the permitting and EIA process, and it is critical that the regulatory frameworks in different markets are fit-for-purpose and future-proofed ahead of any significant growth in offshore wind capacity. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to offshore wind permitting, but the framework and laws governing this process should be well-defined in advance, and ready for the scale and complexity of industrial offshore wind projects. Ironing out issues regarding how cumulative impacts are considered, giving flexible but standardised guidance on EIA methodologies, and providing firm timeframes for review of applications are all essential to make the process as efficient as possible and minimise the potential for delay. A central governing body responsible for such a process can also be extremely beneficial to ensure sufficient resource is available for review and advice regarding permitting and EIA.
Harness data-based design and engineering
The work that goes into designing offshore wind projects has significant potential for time savings. From the outset, gathering ‘good’ data early can be a great way of accelerating the development timelines. This can range from enabling actions from a central body (e.g. the deployment of floating LiDAR devices by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) to gather wind data ahead of time) to promoting innovation and new methods of data collection in the sector, such as the use of autonomous vessels for geophysical surveys.
As more new markets become involved in offshore wind development, the ability to capitalise on learnings and best practices from more mature markets is essential. In particular, inviting experienced designers to partner with local companies or educate local industries and academia on the methods used for designing offshore wind projects is a great way to build a sustainable industry fast. In the same vein, regulatory requirements, standards and certification of design can often be a cause of delay in the design process—especially if they were originally intended for other industries. Promoting the acceptance of international standards for offshore wind, or taking inspiration from foreign standards in a local context, can help to ensure the certification processes are streamlined for the uniqueness of offshore wind design requirements.
Integrate fabrication and installation
Accelerating the manufacture, delivery and installation of the project starts with design—for example, ensuring that foundation designs are optimized not only for steel weight but also ease and cost of fabrication and installation. Having fabricators of components involved at the design stage is crucial to minimising potential delays in the actual fabrication process. Automation, innovation and industrialization of fabrication processes is also essential to delivering wind quickly. The less bespoke the designs can be, the quicker they can be fabricated.
An essential motivation to support offshore wind is the potential for investment in the local economy, particularly in manufacturing. However, overly aggressive targets relating to local supplier involvement are a good way to slow down the development of offshore wind in a market. This has been one of the reasons that France has yet to see a commercial offshore wind farm installed in its waters – the local content requirements and onus on developers has proven difficult to live up to. Making the most of clusters and regional supply chain hubs, while promoting specific manufacturing or supply chain strengths within the market that are better suited to localization, is one of the better ways to drive offshore wind growth quickly.
Taking action to meet the challenge
Building the offshore wind capacity required by 2050 to meet a 1.5 degree warming scenario will require innovation, knowledge-sharing, investment and action across the whole industry. The responsibility for improving policy design, marine spatial planning, EIA and permitting is not just with policymakers, but with industry working collaboratively to share insights on the impact and trade-offs of different approaches. The responsibility for efficient route-to-market arrangements, design and engineering is not just with the developers, but the offtakers, end users and designers themselves to drive forward. And the responsibility for improving fabrication and installation timescales is not just with the supply chain, but with industry as a collective to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Collaboration is key. Meeting the ambitious targets and timelines is possible if industry leaders and policymakers alike pull together to accelerate development.
2As of October 2021, according to RCG’s GRIP market intelligence platform