Offshore wind energy will be a game-changer for Scotland

December 6, 2021

Offshore wind power is the game-changer for Scotland’s sustainable ambitions. With the technology and the economics already proven, the winds of investment are blowing hard offshore and there is real confidence that Scottish and UK targets can be met.

The UK has just over 10 GW of offshore wind power in operation; its target is 40 GW by 2030. Scotland’s target is 11 GW by 2030, with 2GW currently constructed.

“If we can hit these offshore wind targets, that’s a game-changer in terms of using green power to heat homes instead of fossil fuels,” says Richard Cockburn, partner and head of energy at Womble Bond Dickinson. “And we probably can do it. We’ve got another 4GW of offshore wind under construction, and just under 24GW in planning, plus two big new competitions for new offshore wind under way [Round 4 in England and ScotWind in Scotland]. They could account for roughly 18 GW, so that’s more than 40 GW overall. The Scottish contribution would help significantly with the 2045 net-zero target.”

However, there are a number of challenges. Cockburn says: “The planning and consenting processes take a long time; there are supply chain bottlenecks, and overseas investors can be put off by the different processes in Scotland and the rest of the UK, which means more resources, more expense and more time. They would prefer one regime.

“We also need to build the infrastructure onshore and offshore to connect everything up. And we will need a few more auction rounds.”

The current auction rounds will not see turbines spinning until the mid-to-late-2020s, says Cockburn. However, this could be sped up because of the number of oil and gas firms involved in bidding. Some of the best-known industry names are moving into renewables – which is positive for net-zero ambitions, but not without other consequences.

“The presence of the oil and gas companies means more financial power behind the bids, meaning that established renewables developers need to fight harder to win offshore leases,” says Cockburn. “The involvement of the oil and gas majors – and their deep pockets – might mean time frames could be shorter for getting blades spinning, but it has caused a bit of a pause and rethink. How can revenues be maximised while at the same time retaining the goodwill of the longer-standing renewables developers?”

Another big issue is making sure Scotland derives greater economic benefits from the offshore wind boom. Paul Kenneth, a real estate and finance expert with Womble Bond Dickinson, says there is more focus on this nowadays – citing the Neart Na Gaoithe (NNG) site in the Firth of Forth, with a potential capacity of almost 0.5 GW. He says: “An operation and maintenance site [for NNG] is being built in Eyemouth, and turbines will be constructed in Dundee, so you will have a beneficial effect [in Scotland] from these operations.”

Cockburn notes that GE has committed to building a blade manufacturing plant at the new freeport on Teesside, and says: “We are seeing far more requirements to use local supply chains, and pretty much all offshore wind bidders are committing to have parts manufactured – or at least assembled – in the UK.”

Another important trend is the increase in floating wind turbines, with many more likely to be deployed as developers look further out to sea.

“Until now, it’s mostly been areas of shallower waters which have been put out to auction. In deeper water, including the harsher North Sea environments, floating offshore wind is the best way to do that,” says Cockburn, highlighting two current projects, HyWind Scotland and Kincardine Offshore Floating Wind Farm.

“This is an area where Scottish developments are of worldwide importance, and where skills and technology could be exported. Other countries with harsh coastal environments are looking at lessons learned here.”

Onshore wind and solar are also crucial for the net-zero target, with 9 GW currently deployed and 16 GW of installed capacity expected by 2030. But what is the prospect for expansion?

“There are still high levels of activity in securing onshore wind farm sites but a lot of suitable sites have already been developed,” says Kenneth. “Sites now are more often scattered across various land ownerships, and can be more difficult to get to, so you might be dealing with several landowners to construct a wind farm rather than a single landowner.

“Developers are looking to areas like the north coast, which brings in considerations of how to get agreement to develop a wind farm on crofting land.”

Kenneth says the industry is already looking at the next generation: “Planning permissions last for around 25 years and leases 25 years-plus, so there comes a point where many developers need to decide if they’re going to install new turbines or try to extend the lifespan of existing turbines.

“With advances in technology, you can monitor performance and take action for maintenance and repair before catastrophic failure. In some circumstances, re powering will be appropriate and in others, extending the lifespan of existing assets will be the way forward.”

John Boyce, head of wind projects at RES, which manages more than 7.5 GW of renewable assets in Scotland, says onshore wind is increasingly able to do more with less.

He says: “Wind turbines are evolving and we are now able to produce more energy with fewer turbines. Installing the most modern turbines available will ensure Scotland reaps the benefits of great efficiencies and more clean, green electricity generation.

“Often, we find that people get very hung up on the numerical value of turbine heights and we’ve seen local planning authorities placing arbitrary limits, but we think the most important part is ensuring wind farms are designed sensitively.”

He adds: “Meeting our ambitions of net-zero and decarbonising all areas of society will require the deployment of more onshore wind, the cheapest form of new generation. Every scenario from the Committee on Climate Change to the International Energy Agency sees onshore wind playing a vital role.”

So where is the renewable energy revolution heading next? “I think wave and tidal power will become mainstream in the next few years as we have such fantastic resources,” says Cockburn. “The technology is coming on leaps and bounds.”

With so much going on, does Scotland need to focus on specifics, or do a bit of everything?

“There is only so much money available to invest in renewables,” says Cockburn. “That tends to go into proven technologies and ones with pipelines of work. We need to do what’s achievable – and sensible.

“From a human point of view, a lot of jobs in Scotland are dependent on oil and gas, particularly in the north-east, and there needs to be a just transition. Part of that is looking where skills can be redeployed. Carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and engineering connected with offshore wind, wave or tidal are obvious places for that.”

Greener grid parks help with stability

An emerging and crucially important area for renewables, especially wind and solar, is energy storage and grid stability.

“Rather than having a handful of power stations reacting to supply and demand, there are now many different methods of generating renewable electricity on many different sites,” says Paul Mason, real estate partner at Womble Bond Dickinson.

Maintaining stability of the power grid has become a bigger challenge as more electricity is generated from renewables. Bringing solutions are firms such as Statkraft, which is developing Greener Grid Parks across the UK.

Guy Nicholson, head of grid integration at Statkraft UK, says: “We don’t always get to utilise all of the renewable electricity that could be generated, so our grid must be adapted to the rapid progress that renewable energy has made. Sometimes it’s been necessary to shut down wind farms and operate gas power plants to keep the grid stable. Projects such as our Greener Grid Parks will make this a thing of the past.”