UK Unplugs To Advance Offshore Wind

It sounds like a contradiction, but to get more power at less cost from offshore wind turbines, the UK is looking to back projects that don’t require a grid connection – and, in some cases, don’t even have turbines.

Here’s what’s going on: The Crown Estate, which manages the waters off the UK’s vast coastline, has put out a call for test and demonstration projects that seek to advance offshore wind technology in areas such as “foundations, cable laying and operations and maintenance procedures.”

corwn estate offshore wind

image via London Array

Offshore wind power has a wide range of advantages over land-based wind power. People find it less objectionable, the wind is more consistent, the turbines can be made larger … the list goes on. But it’s pricey. Last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance put the levelized cost of offshore wind at about $212 per megawatt-hour, more than twice that for land-base wind. A U.K. goal is to drive the cost down to £100/MWh by 2020 – about $151/mWh.

In its new tender offer, the Crown Estate said that nearly a third of the initiatives that an offshore wind cost reduction task force recently listed can be pursued without a grid connection or a turbine – making tests and demos themselves less expensive.

“By leasing specific sites for projects which don’t involve a grid connection and a turbine, sites can be smaller, cheaper and easier to consent, thereby making delivery timescales much faster,” the Crown Estate said. “This should enable the test and demonstration of novel technologies and processes such as new foundations, cable laying and operations and maintenance procedures.”

With costs high, the UK (and Germany, for that matter) is beginning to go wobbly on its aggressive pursuit of offshore wind power. A new draft Electricity Market Reform Delivery Plan from the government last week essentially sees the UK not hitting its 2020 18 gigawatt offshore wind goal until 2030.

The industry group RenewablesUK said that, ironically, it’s just that lack of commitment to offshore wind that could make achieving cost reductions difficult. From a statement:

Industry needs to know that Government has confidence that industry can deliver its cost reduction targets. Yet five of the six scenarios seem to assume that offshore wind will not deliver on a shared industry-government target to reduce costs down to £100/MWh by 2020. This suggests low confidence in the sector and could undermine investment. Industry understands that its success relates to its ability to deliver cost reduction and economic benefit. But that needs to be a shared starting assumption not something left for the next Government to pass judgement on.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.