UK on the Brink of Becoming the World Leader of Low-cost Clean Power Generation

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has set out an ambitious new vision for offshore wind to power every home in the UK by 2030. He has promised to make a massive investment in offshore wind energy announcing the plan at the Conservative party conference.

Boris Johnson said:

“Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle, the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands.”

According to Aurora Energy Research, an Oxford-based consultancy, however, almost £50 billion in capital investment is required to meet the 40GW target. As it stands the UK has approximately 10GW of offshore wind power which means that a huge number of wind turbines will need to be constructed over the next decade. Back in February Aurora Energy Research calculated that “an average annual installation rate of 260 turbines would need to be sustained over 5 years which is equivalent to one turbine installed every weekday throughout the whole of the 2020s.”

The wind energy industry has become one of the UK’s most cherished industrial success stories. The capacity of the UK’s offshore wind turbines has developed in the past 10 years from 1GW to nearly 10GW at the start of 2020 and building costs have been pushed down by almost two thirds.

Back in March 2019 the government had already committed to a 30GW target through an offshore wind sector deal, but Boris Johnson promised to increase that number to 40GW if he won the election. Since the Conservative’s victory a lot has happened however with the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the government to spend considerable sums of money on industry and job protection schemes. Given the state of the economy few would have been surprised if green plans had been quietly shelved to a later date. 

This has turned out to absolutely not be the case with the government’s new green plan emerging as central to Britain’s aim to “build back better” after the pandemic, towards its 2050 goals.

Johnson has said that the government would invest £160 million in ports and factories that can develop “the next generation of turbines.” He has also promised to deploy floating turbines that can deliver 1GW of offshore wind energy by 2030. His green agenda will still need to clear multiple hurdles to prove that the promise of billions in investment and much-needed green jobs can be delivered.

Hugh McNeal, CEO of trade association RenewableUK said:

“The Government has raised the ambition for offshore wind and renewables, and our industry is ready to meet the challenge.”

The government has committed to investing in a clean energy future to create “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs” in the next decade.

The prime minister compared the UK’s resources in off-shore wind to Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, saying that the UK would “become the world leader in low-cost clean power generation – cheaper than oil and gas”.

Keith Anderson, the chief executive of Scottish Power, one of the largest investors in Britain’s renewable energy industry, said there is “no shortage of capital or investor appetite in offshore wind” but the pace and scale of the industry’s growth will depend on the government’s ability to grant new seabed licences and project contracts at record speed.

The government plans to attract investment from the private sector through a major contract auction next spring. This will also include support for onshore wind and solar power projects for the first time in four years since the government removed the block against onshore wind projects early in 2020 allowing schemes to compete for subsidies alongside solar power developments and floating offshore wind projects.

This upcoming auction alone has the potential to generate more than £20bn of investment and create 12,000 jobs, mainly in the construction sector, according to RenewableUK, the trade association for wind power.

Keith Anderson went on to say:

“I am absolutely confident that the industry can achieve this. My only nervousness is that people will start to see the 40GW as a cap. We should achieve that, and power past it. We are going to need far more clean electricity.”

Next year the UK will be hosting the vital UN climate talks, Cop26, postponed by a year due to the Coronavirus pandemic, which is putting extra pressure on the UK government to produce a programme of measures that will show the UK is taking its net-zero target seriously.

The UK still has a long way to go in order to reach its net zero commitment by 2050 despite the push to offshore wind and the recently launched £2 billion Green Homes Grant.

There are some doubts that the much-heralded green recovery will lead to a big increase in jobs to accompany the offshore wind expansion but the government has promised that at least 60% of the content of offshore wind farms will be made in the UK.

£160m is being invested by the government in upgrading the UK’s ports to manage the size of a new generation of mega-turbines, including floating windmills capable of delivering 1GW of energy by 2030, over 15 times the current floating offshore volumes worldwide. This will help to create supply chain hubs in port communities which face economic decline.

It is hoped that this initial investment will rapidly create about 2,000 construction jobs and enable the sector to support up to 60,000 jobs directly and indirectly by 2030 in ports, factories, and the supply chains.

The new floating offshore technology will allow wind farms to be built further out to sea in deeper waters boosting capacity even more where winds are strongest. This should ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the next generation of clean energy.

Executive director of the Aldersgate Group said that this much needed investment in port infrastructure should be matched by “a clear focus on low-carbon skills” to help grow domestic supply chains as well as create jobs in the sector.

Johnson said:

“As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind, a place of almost limitless resource, but in the case of wind without the carbon emissions and without the damage to the environment.”

Later this year, another step in the planned green economic recovery is expected to be promoted, the shift to electric vehicles with the decision having already been made to end the sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030.

A tentative date in November has been set for the announcement of the government’s Build Back Greener plan which is expected to follow the advice set out by the Committee on Climate Change.

Luke Clark of RenewableUK, spoke recently about the plan to expedite the growth of wind farms:

“It is one of the lowest cost options for new power in the UK, and the industry has worked tirelessly to bring down costs over the last decade by investing in innovative new technologies and our supply chain.  The real risk for consumers is being tied to expensive, high carbon power sources instead of low-cost renewables, which markets across the globe are consistently showing to be the future of the energy system.”