Contrary to expectations at the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 has brought a surprising amount of attention to the climate crisis, and thus also renewable energy. Factors such as the price of oil crashing in March and the visible reduction in urban pollution resulting from the short-term global shutdown have certainly contributed to policy that favours clean energy, however it is comforting to think that today’s governments see renewable energy as an important long-term asset. Over the past few months countries such as Germany and France have announced multi-billion euro packages with EUR 50bn and EUR 30bn respectively set aside for sustainable development, however the Boris Johnson this month made a particularly bold announcement: every home in the UK will be powered by offshore wind by 2030. He intends that everyone’s kettles, heating and even plug-in electric vehicles to be powered ‘cleanly and without guilt’ by one of Britain’s most significant natural resources, wind.
The target set by Boris Johnson includes generating 40GW of power from offshore wind by 2030. For comparison, the UK’s total installed capacity (the maximum amount of power that a generator can produce) in 2019 was 104GW of which approximately 9.97GW was made up by offshore wind, thus the government’s aims are certainly lofty. Furthermore, Johnson promised that this endeavour would create 60,000 jobs and involve £160M of investment into ports and factories in the UK, helping bolster traditionally industrial towns in England such as Humber and Teesside as well as sites in Wales and Scotland. In theory, this sounds like a fool-proof plan, but how feasible is it?
In terms of geography, the UK lends itself very well to offshore wind. The North Sea is shallow, especially along the east coast of England and parts of Scotland, meaning that fixed arrays of wind turbines can be built and operated relatively easily in the UK’s waters. Whilst Johnson intends to make up the bulk of his 40GW with fixed arrays, the government plans to have 1GW of power coming from floating wind turbines, which would enable the government to make better use of deeper areas of the North Sea. A study published in 2015 found that by utilising only 10% of the UK’s available offshore wind resources, it would be possible to install 150GW of capacity for less than £140/MWh, approximately $183/MWh at current exchange rates. The key, however, to the success of offshore wind will be in ensuring it is cheaper than its alternatives.
Boris Johnson claimed that Britain’s future offshore wind will be cheaper than both coal and gas, which, in 2017, had levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) ranging between $60-$143/MWh and $42-$78/MWh respectively. Whilst these ranges are significantly lower than the $183/MWh prediction, offshore wind is rapidly becoming less expensive. Still less mature than onshore wind, offshore wind technology is continuously being developed and Bloomberg reported a 32% drop in the cost of offshore wind between 2018 and 2019. Therefore, if trends continue, Johnson’s promises may well materialise.
If both LCOE and availability of resources are not an issue, is there anything getting in the way of Johnson’s vision for clean energy in the UK? A crucial hurdle for both solar and wind energy is intermittency, or the variation in energy output throughout the day based in fluctuations in light intensity and wind speed respectively. The inability to match peak energy production from such renewables with peak consumption of a nation can result in significant electricity wastage and necessitates the use of scalable power systems, such as natural gas turbines. Problems with intermittency can be eased with the use of battery storage (or in the future, power-to-gas hydrogen systems), however without any suitable technology or infrastructure for large scale battery storage, intermittency remains a significant source of loss for energy producers. However, as opposed to onshore wind, offshore wind has the special classification of ‘variable baseload power generation technology’ meaning that it has a relatively high capacity factor of 40-50% (the average power output of a turbine divided by its rated peak power) and has a less variable energy output than competing technologies (approximately half the hour-to-hour variability of photovoltaics). The relative consistency of offshore wind compared to other renewables makes it a strong option for clean electricity generation in the UK, and whilst energy storage certainly remains important, it is a less significant hurdle for the government than some might suggest.
On balance, Boris Johnson’s wind plan makes sense. Britain has some of the most extensive wind resources in the world, and with a large coastline and an abundance of industrial towns rearing for investment, offshore wind can provide a clean, cheap energy source for the future, and will certainly help stimulate the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, in Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party’s virtual conference, he emphasised the importance of the private sector in stimulating the economy and driving recovery. With the government encouraging private ventures, there may be an abundance of opportunities for investors in the development of offshore wind, including infrastructure investments in ports and electricity lines as well as investment in manufacturing, installation and operating companies.
Johnson’s statement was bold, however it seems feasible for the UK to indeed power every home with offshore wind by 2030 given, and in setting this target the government may be opening up a wealth of opportunities for investors and helping boost industrial towns and cities in the northeast, Scotland and Wales that need economic stimulation the most.