Smarter collaboration is key to offshore cost reduction

Published 8 May 2015

By Dr Stephen Wyatt, Strategy & Commercialisation Director for ORE Catapult

Back in 2012, the UK offshore wind industry set itself a cost target of £100/MWh by 2020. Recent analysis by ORE Catapult on behalf of the UK’s Offshore Wind Programme Board indicates that we are on track to meet this target.  This is impressive given that over recent years the level of ambition in the sector, as measured by expected installed capacity, has shrunk from over 30GW to around 10GW by 2020.

Today, we have just over 4GW of offshore wind installed in UK waters.  Broader energy market factors have largely driven our reduced level of ambition; a shift from oil to gas and greater than anticipated deployment of other renewables, notably solar PV, has meant that the UK is less dependent on offshore wind to hit our legally binding carbon targets.  So the real driver for offshore wind energy development comes down to cost competitiveness as compared with other forms of energy generation.

Driving cost reduction means doing things more efficiently, learning faster, and developing new technologies.  ORE Catapult is working in collaboration with industry to directly address the costs of offshore wind to maximise the potential installed capacity.  It is our ambition to see the UK not only continue to lead the world in offshore wind energy development but also to act as a global centre for service provision and know-how for offshore wind further afield.

Collaboration and knowledge sharing doesn’t come naturally in a competitive marketplace; the benefits must, therefore, be compelling.  When ORE Catapult and The Crown Estate developed the SPARTA project back in 2012, sharing operational data was practically unheard of; we now have over fifty percent of the UK’s offshore wind turbines feeding data into the system each month. This vast data set allows the industry to improve its understanding of offshore operational conditions and how to operate offshore wind farms more effectively.  This tool is proving invaluable in identifying areas for further research and development.

However, public and private sector research and innovation funds are limited, so it’s important that future investment is focused on tackling the areas where we get the biggest ‘bang for our buck’.  We must also look to share the costs of R&D through collaboration across industry and intelligent use of public funding.

Ultimately, we want to see new technologies deployed on operational wind farms. However, introducing any new technology to an operational situation is inherently risky; with offshore wind sites tens of miles offshore, repairs in situ can be difficult and expensive and can prove costly for windfarm owner/operators through lost power generation and revenue.  As an industry, we still have much to learn about how we effectively introduce new technologies to the market.  We simply need to better understand the conditions we are designing for.  Making better use of our existing data to create greater knowledge and understanding about the operational environment will help get first principles right.

Testing in a controlled environment ahead of the first deployment offshore is also important.  Testing programmes should replicate as much as possible the conditions offshore, be that at early stage small scale, full scale, or full load tests.  Feedback loops between stages of development are vital to understanding scaling effects as we leap from one stage to the next.

In addition, we need to make new technologies “bankable”, by which we mean getting the finance community (and those advising them) comfortable with the risk inherent in the introduction of new technologies.  Here, consistency is key; we need testing standards and protocols which reflect reality to provide assurance of performance.  I firmly believe ORE Catapult has a key role to play in managing and de-risking new technology, delivering key services in our own right through our test and demonstration assets, collaborative joint industry projects, and focused research and development activity driven by analysis of existing industry data, capturing and sharing lessons learned for wider industry benefit.

So where does the industry go next in its commercialisation journey? With wind farms moving further offshore and into deeper waters, new challenges are emerging which will impact on our ability just to maintain current cost levels. But, at the same time, we are moving to bigger, more efficient turbines, advanced techniques to improve energy yield and control, and better information to inform operations and maintenance.  I believe the industry is on the right track for further growth, but we can get smarter; collectively we need to focus on creating and spreading knowledge and understanding on a scale we have yet to see in our sector.

We must, of course, recognise that the key players in the sector are not about to throw open the doors and give away all their valuable know-how and intellectual property, but we do need to leverage our collective experiences to inform industry processes and decision-making and iron out inefficiencies which impact on the overall economics of the sector.  We have done this within individual organisations for years, and with projects like SPARTA we are beginning to do this across the UK market.  Now it is time to look at how we can collaborate on a global scale to improve the cost competitiveness of our industry.