The answer is blowing in the wind

A picture of the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Farm
A picture of the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Farm
Jeremy Cresswell
Opinion by Jeremy Cresswell

It is with some satisfaction that, over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the installation of the 11 large turbines that comprise the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre, which is owned 100% by the Swedish energy utility Vattenfall.

There are a number of reasons for that, not least my own involvement in its development through to full consent by the Scottish Government, including working with colleague directors and the chief operating officer of Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group to secure a 40million-euro grant from Brussels to help kick-start the project.

This cluster of 8-plus-megawatt turbines includes the largest in the world – the MHI Vestas 8.8MW units.

It is the big come-on for Aberdeen to accelerate the strengthening of the oil capital’s engagement with low carbon energy, otherwise known these days as the “Energy Transition”.

They will for the next 20 or so years be a constant reminder to the oil and gas supply chain that offshore wind really is a multi-billion-pound business opportunity.

And each turbine will apparently carry the flag of Europe for that period, despite the appalling Brexit folly that the Tories and Labour’s “Tory in drag” leader Jeremy Corbyn are determined to inflict on all of us.

I note by the way that one north-east Tory MP, Colin Clark, has still tried to cash in on this essentially European wind project despite being a

Despite an energy “new order” now emerging strongly in Europe, even to the point that mighty

Statoil has changed its name to Equinor to reflect its own huge changes, Dutch consultancy Navigant via its Ecofys unit, is warning that the transition has to be carefully managed with all key stakeholders needing to co-operate more effectively than has been the case to date.

That said, Navigant barely mentions the still hugely important offshore oil and gas industry in a just published “white paper”. Rather, it places a lot of emphasis on the marine environment and the opportunity that the transition presents with regard to restoring marine biodiversity. References to oil and gas are perfunctory.

Nonetheless, I agree with Navigant that the energy transition offers an opportunity to rethink North Sea use and spatial planning, and to unlock the opportunity of improving marine biodiversity (in line with the EU biodiversity strategy and Marine Strategy Framework Directive) for multiple stakeholder benefits.

It claims that biodiversity and the ecological status of the North Sea could be increased if the
offshore renewable energy system is expanded through an ecosystem approach that integrates consideration of the potential environmental risks and benefits.

Navigant argues: “The expansion should be based on a strategic approach that includes all ecological topics (eg, seabirds, underwater noise, and hard substrate) and should designate space for sustainable fisheries outside ecologically sensitive areas.

“A more efficient regional marine planning system (or at least better coordination, more coherent
planning of the different countries) that strategically includes the most important fishing grounds is likely to minimise the scope for disruption or conflict at a later stage.”

It claims that interviews with key stakeholders confirmed that the evolution of the renewable energy system in the North Sea is generally seen as an opportunity to increase biodiversity.

However, this requires vision, leadership and a change in mind-set. It will also require the involvement and dedication of leading offshore wind developers by going the extra mile and actively working on improving biodiversity.

Navigant points out that offshore wind developments are benchmarked against cost reduction, but that it is time to start looking at integral benefits as well.

An internationally coordinated rollout of offshore wind clusters and a change in regulatory frameworks to include clear marine biodiversity and co-use targets would apparently facilitate this.

Its analysts warn that EU member nation governments and industry leaders should act now to shape a transparent and all-inclusive decision-making framework towards

North Sea spatial planning on a regional level, or at least national, with a good level of international coordination.

They say that there is a need to actively engage with all stakeholder groups through a “managed stakeholder process”, whatever that is.

This is essential if one is to avoid the combined effect of multiple offshore wind farms together with other anthropogenic impacts, such as gravel extraction and oil and gas production on the North Sea environment.

Navigant warns: “Large-scale developments could be curtailed because of potential unacceptable ecological effects” and that “most stakeholders believed there is not enough information available to adequately understand spatial planning implications as a basis for good marine environmental protection”.

But it proposes that, despite the risks, “a radical redesign of the North Sea” could provide an opportunity to increase marine biodiversity.

Make no mistake, a clear vision and plan is required to redesign the North Sea and facilitate all user functionalities in combination with large-scale offshore wind, which is here to stay long-term, in my opinion.

Based on current forecasts, there could be about 180,000MW of wind generation capacity planted in all sectors of the North Sea by 2050. That is more than 10 times the current installed capacity.

To make it easier to understand the sheer scale of the forthcoming impact, that equates to 36,000 five-megawatt turbines. The current population is around 3,600 with the UK accounting for the largest share.

For comparison, there are now fewer than 1,000 oil and gas production units producing and that population is now in steep decline.

But it looks as if offshore wind is destined to become every bit as out of sight and out of mind as Big Oil in the North Sea, delivering the power in ever greater quantities.

The very large number of turbines to be installed by 2050 regardless of size – and there are super-large machines with up to 50MW capacity being touted – in reality will pose major issues for other North Sea stakeholders.

That makes Navigant’s call for co-operation very important indeed. I hope that pathfinder projects like the EOWDC and Equinor’s Hywind cluster off Peterhead will play a vital role in that process.