We think of the sea as being a large empty space but the energy transition is changing the UK’s seascape radically.
The UK is currently the world’s largest generator of offshore wind. Its 2,300 turbines and more than 10 gigawatts (GW) of capacity contributed almost 12% of UK electricity in the first quarter of 2021. England’s Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4 creates the opportunity for at least 7GW of new projects in its waters by 2030 while Crown Estate Scotland has just closed ScotWind, which could result in a further 10GW of wind farms being built in 15 areas around Scotland. More than 70 bids have been made by oil companies including Shell, BP, Total, Eni and Equinor, as well as traditional renewables developers like Vattenfall, ScottishPower and Orsted. This is just the beginning, as the Climate Change Committee’s sixth Carbon Budget recommends that offshore wind grows from 40GW in 2030 to 100GW or more by 2050.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s 10 Point Plan included a commitment to deploy Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) in two industrial clusters by the mid-2020s, and a further two clusters by 2030 with an ambition to capture 10 MtCO₂ per year by 2030. These may involve the use of depleted gas fields or saline aquifers for the storage of carbon dioxide.
However, the UK’s seabed is already subject to numerous uses including fisheries, siting of oil and gas infrastructure, electricity and telecommunications cables to mention just a few. How are these competing uses to be balanced?
When oil or gas and renewables companies seek to develop the same or adjoining areas of the seabed, the government expects the parties to come to a commercial agreement to resolve any conflicts. If this proves impossible, however, the Secretary of State may request The Crown Estate to exercise a contractual right to terminate the lease, even where the wind farm has already been built, in order to allow an oil or gas development to proceed, subject to the oil and gas developer paying compensation. These rules are now some years old and it is interesting to speculate whether the Secretary of State would today choose to prioritise oil and gas over wind.
The Crown Estate in July announced the formation of a new Co-location Forum which will seek to identify and resolve the challenges associated with the co-location of offshore wind and CCUS infrastructure. It will also involve government, the OGA, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and RenewableUK.
The forum has been developed in response to a study funded by The Crown Estate with support from the OGA, and conducted by the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the Net Zero Technology Centre (formerly OGTC) which examined the risks of co-location. The study concluded that whilst such projects should be planned to avoid overlap where possible, co-location is feasible with appropriate mitigation.
Immediate mitigation actions include good co-ordination and communication between projects when planning activities to avoid safety risks arising.
Another significant issue is the ability to physically perform CCUS monitoring, measurement and verification (MMV) surveys – these surveys are likely to involve the use of seismic or acoustic techniques which require long streamers to be towed behind survey vessels, difficult to do between wind turbines. The report recommended developing alternative MMV technologies which are more compatible with offshore wind projects.
However, the study’s key recommendation was the formation of an oversight body to provide strategic coordination of co-location research and activity. It also recommended a proactive review of where projects could potentially overlap to ensure a combined approach to planning in those areas. The new forum will be undertaking those activities.
The impact of the growth in offshore wind on the fishing industry has been highlighted in recent weeks by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which has accused the government of failing to recognise the huge displacement that wind turbines and their associated transmission cables are already causing the industry. Whether wind turbines and other offshore man-made structures are good for fish stocks is a contentious topic on which the INSITE programme is conducting research. There is some good co-operation currently. There is also guidance on compensation schemes for disruption during construction. Offering alternative employment for fishermen can also build good relationships.
It seems that there will be much more work to do to as we move towards a low-carbon economy to ensure that the various users of the UK’s waters can peacefully co-exist.