The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that power supplies from turbines are set to be the next great energy revolution.
Although wind power only accounts for 0.3% of the world’s energy currently it is thought that as costs fall and green policies rise that it will grow into a trillion-dollar industry.
A major industry report from the IEA has claimed that ultimately wind power will have the potential to provide enough clean electricity for every person on earth 18 times over. A comprehensive study of the world’s coastlines has found that offshore windfarms alone could provide more electricity than the world needs even if they are only built in windy regions in shallow waters near the shore. Researchers at the IEA believe that offshore windfarms could become a cornerstone of the world’s power supply.
New wind turbine technology and increasing reductions in setup and operating costs are opening up the potential of this green energy source.
The growth of global offshore wind capacity is accelerating at great speed. The IEA claims that this capacity could increase 15-fold and attract $1 trillion (800bn) of cumulative investment by as soon as 2040. The IEA puts this boom down to plummeting costs in installations, supportive government policies and remarkable technological progress elements of which include larger turbines almost as high as the Eiffel Tower and floating foundations.
The IEA says that European countries including the UK have led the rapid pace of this change with the global offshore wind market growing nearly 30 per cent per year between 2010 and 2018.
There are currently 150 new offshore wind projects in development around the world with China adding more capacity than any other country in 2018.
The IEA report shows that if windfarms were built across all useable sites which are no further than 60km (37 miles) off the coast, and where coastal waters are no deeper than 60 metres, they could generate 36,000 terawatt hours of renewable electricity a year. The IEA concludes that this would easily meet the current global demand for electricity of 23,000 terawatt hours.
The IEA report says:
“Today’s offshore wind market doesn’t even come close to tapping the full potential. With high-quality resources available in most major markets, offshore wind has the potential to generate more than 420,000 terawatt hours per year worldwide. This is more than 18 times global electricity demand today.”
The IEA believe that much work must be done to bring a clean energy revolution to fruition.
It is crucial that fossil fuels are replaced with renewables in order to meet the globally agreed goal of limiting the average temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius this century.
According to the IEA, further increasing the use of offshore wind farms could cut around 5–7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the global power industry. They have said that because global supplies of renewable electricity are growing faster than expected that these supplies could expand by 50% in the next 5 years driven by a revival in solar energy. The IEA estimates that the next generation of floating turbines that can operate further from the shore could generate enough energy to meet the world’s total electricity demand 11 times over in 2040.
Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director at the IEA said:
“In the past decade, two major areas of technological innovation have been game-changers in the energy system by substantially driving down costs: the shale revolution and the rise of solar photovoltaics. Offshore wind has the potential to join their ranks in terms of steep cost reduction.”
More than $4 billion was spent last year building a 1-gigawatt offshore wind project which included the transmission of the power to the shore.
Dr Fatih Birol said:
“More and more of that potential is coming within reach, but much work remains to be done by governments and industry for it to become a mainstay of clean energy transitions.”
Both the growing awareness of the climate crisis and political responses to environmental concerns are also contributing to growth in the industry. Wind could become Europe’s main source of energy in just 20 years.
It is likely that the growth of offshore wind generation in China who are taking the lead from the UK will be even more rapid with its offshore wind capacity forecast to grow from 4 gigawatts to 110 gigawatts by 2040 or even 170 gigawatts if China takes on tougher climate targets.
Renewable energy is set to become competitive with new coal-fired capacity by around 2030. The IEA however, cautioned that big investments into onshore grid infrastructure and more political action would be required to ensure wind’s uptake.
The technology is particularly attractive in China, where great efforts are being made to reduce air pollution. Offshore wind farms can also be built near many of the country’s major population centres.
The IEA said one of the most important technological advancements in offshore wind is the development of floating turbines that can be deployed further out at sea.
Further to this the IEA said:
“In theory, floating turbines could enable offshore wind to meet the entire electricity demand of several key electricity markets several times over, including Europe, the United States and Japan.”
Indications are that offshore wind will soon beat new natural gas capacity in Europe on cost and be on a par with solar photovoltaics and onshore wind.
European offshore wind capacity could be dramatically higher if there was a more ambitious vision in which government policies were to drive an increase in demand for clean hydrogen produced by offshore wind.
This would bring about a scenario where electricity generated by wind turbines could be used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, with the hydrogen then being stored and ultimately blended with normal gas supplies to heat houses or fuel vehicles. It could also be recycled to generate more clean electricity.
Huge amounts of electricity are used in the process of making hydrogen from water, but plentiful, inexpensive offshore wind power could help produce a low-cost, zero-carbon alternative to gas instead of using fossil fuel gas for heating and in heavy industry.
Energy companies are already planning to use the electricity generated by giant offshore windfarms in the North Sea to turn seawater into hydrogen on a floating ‘green hydrogen’ project backed by the UK government. This clean-burning gas could be pumped back to shore to heat millions of homes by the 2030s. This is an important step as the UK has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Dr Fatih Birol said:
“Offshore wind provides a huge new business portfolio for major engineering firms and established oil and gas companies which have a strong offshore production experience. Our analysis shows that 40% of the work in offshore wind construction and maintenance has synergies with oil and gas practises.”
The first offshore turbines were installed in 1991 in Denmark, which last year produced 15 per cent of its electricity from offshore wind.
Today, the UK is the country with the biggest wind capacity, but the industry is growing, especially in the US and in Asian countries including Japan and Taiwan.
There could be major economic benefits for the UK as the burgeoning offshore wind sector overlaps with the UK’s declining oil and gas industry.
Notably, even though green transition is increasingly taking over the global political agenda, there is a growing disconnect between climate ambitions and real-life emissions with energy related CO2 emissions reaching a historic high last year
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