How offshore wind is evolving to hit 2050 net zero targets
05 Apr 2023
Offshore wind is key in the transition to a low-carbon economy. The sector has experienced tremendous growth in recent years: countries that border the North Sea regularly multiply their gigawatt capacity targets; the US is expanding rapidly; and Asia Pacific is catching up fast. But is having the ambition to hit net zero in 2050 enough?
According to the Global Wind Energy Council, capacity will need to rise to 450 GW by 2030 and to 1150 GW by 2050 for the world to hit the net zero target– it currently sits at around 30 GW. If all goes to plan, offshore wind will be providing up to 25 % of total global power generation by 2050. These ambitions, together with the demand for cleaner energy are driving change in the offshore wind sector.
Wind turbines are getting larger and floating substructures are venturing into harsher environments. This has highlighted a challenge we will face in the coming years: there simply aren’t enough people or vessels to survey, install and maintain all of the world’s offshore wind projects.
But there are solutions at hand: autonomous and remotely operated vessels are already speeding up surveys, removing people from harm’s way and making offshore wind operations generate a lower carbon footprint, become more productive and cost-effective.
Larger turbines and sites have exponentially increased the amount of Geo-data required for planning. In response, advances in cloud-based data delivery and AI powered analysis are optimising design and engineering activities, speeding up decision-making and helping teams to engage stakeholders in a more transparent way.
The regulatory and financial environment
It generally takes about five years to gain consent for an offshore wind farm, which is two years longer than the time it takes to build it. Regulatory review in the US, Europe and the UK aims to speed up the planning process. But if fast decisions are made without fully understanding their impact on the environment, we won’t succeed in creating a more sustainable energy system because we may create unforeseen cumulative impacts on the marine environment. Ocean science initiatives are helping to increase the knowledge base for decision making, through open data sharing, leading to greater confidence about potential impact mitigation.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations are driving capital towards offshore wind, especially among long term-investors like pension funds. But increased competition between potential ESG funds is also increasing demand for data and clarity, to help reduce capital costs. More in-depth environmental information, advances in environmental monitoring, and streamlined data delivery will help meet these needs.
Coordinated grid infrastructure
Given the rapid increase of offshore wind farms, a robust and coordinated grid infrastructure is essential. This has not been the case in the UK, where the market-oriented approach has resulted in multiple substations, one per offshore wind farm. This frustrates local communities and councils who feel they must accept more unsightly electrical infrastructure than is necessary. Their understandable objections then delay planning timelines. By contrast, in the Netherlands the authorities’ coordinated approach allows developers to focus on what they do best: building the offshore wind assets.
Many strategic initiatives are being implemented at a country level to minimise or share additional grid infrastructure at a local level, like England’s Offshore Transmission Network Review and Denmark and Belgium’s decision to connect to new offshore ’energy islands’. Initiatives like the North Seas Energy Cooperation are coordinating developments between the nine countries within the North Sea region.
All grid infrastructure is built from detailed ground models, and advanced data analytics is speeding up analysis. For many countries looking to coordinate grid infrastructure, an analysis of the Law of the Sea, which creates a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities, and of the seabed will be immensely helpful in selecting the most appropriate locations offshore.
It is a requirement under various planning regulations to consult with local stakeholders, including the public. But it is also good practice to reduce the risk of objections and legal challenges to commissioning the renewable energy we need to meet net zero targets by 2050. Generally, public acceptance of offshore wind is high. The latest Public Attitudes Tracker shows 85 % of people actively support offshore wind, 9 % are apathetic and only 6 % oppose it. There is usually a lot of opposition to grid infrastructure, which people find ugly. With greater coordination between the siting of substations and the connection of export cables to the substations, grid infrastructure should reduce in the future, because there should be less grid infrastructure for more electricity.
The general public are interested in job creation. There are positive steps to increase local and longer-term employment in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of offshore wind, driven by requirements for leases and subsidies. Companies down the supply chain are investing locally too: developers are setting up education or professional transition programmes; and creating onshore employment through remote operations centres.
The offshore wind sector has always been subject to a high degree of planning scrutiny. The planning cycles are long. On average, in Europe it takes two years to identify sites, at least four years to gain consent, and a further two years to complete all steps before construction. This requires detailed environmental data and the expectations from regulators are increasing. Thankfully regulators and investors are keen to ramp up monitoring activities to understand the environmental impact of offshore wind, which is creating opportunities to innovate.
The impact of carbon emissions during the development of offshore wind farms is often cited in opposition, yet it is less regulated. The importance of decarbonisation is filtering through to the supply chain but we’re proud to be leading the way. We plan to be net zero by 2035 – to do this, we aim to decarbonise our fleet and drive similar changes in the vessels we charter.
The offshore wind industry aims to be net zero by 2050. Achieving this ambition will require utility-scale renewable energy generation and big data-driven improvements in understanding, monitoring and collaboration to protect our world’s oceans and in turn, our planet.
Offshore wind site appraisal and concept design
Did you know?
We aim to be net zero by 2035
The first offshore wind project we supported was back in 1997
There is a pipeline of about €1 trillion of offshore wind assets in the world
The first offshore wind projects were designed using only about 30 megabytes of data, whereas modern projects use over 30 terabytes of data
About the author
Daniel Smith is Solution Owner Offshore Wind Farm Site Appraisal at Fugro.