The journey to net zero will likely provide the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. But it also provides one of the greatest opportunities. In our latest Net Zero Week instalment, Copper Consultancy’s Dominika Chalder and Matthew Addy explore the key role offshore wind is playing in the charge towards net zero.

Decarbonisation of our economy requires rapid electrification of all sectors. Fast growth in transport, construction and other industries will increase electricity demands up to 50% by 2035 and it is predicted to triple by 2050 according to the Climate Change Committee experts. To avert catastrophic effects of climate change, our future relies very heavily on the rollout of renewable energy projects and the expanded grid connections that deliver the energy to the customers.

There is an immense pressure on the energy sector to deliver this rapid transformation. Globally, it produces almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions [1], so there is no doubt that this sector will play a critical role in achieving the net zero future.

The Climate Change Committee expects the UK to achieve clean power generation by 2045. Today, the UK is the world leader in offshore wind, due to its favourably windy conditions, the country’s geographical position, and the significant investment from the offshore sector over the past few decades. This was highlighted again this week with the announcement that the Crown Estate Scotland has received over 70 bids as part of the ScotWind leasing auction.

Undoubtedly, the delivery of net zero and carbon-free electricity will depend mostly on the further expansion of offshore wind farms. Currently, offshore wind powers the equivalent of over 7.5 million UK homes and the sector’s ambition is to become the main producer of a clean, reliable and affordable energy in the UK.  The latest goal for the UK government, as set out in the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, is for the country to achieve 40GW from offshore wind by 2030, on a path to 65-125GW by 2050 [2].

Let’s take a look where the offshore wind sector is on this path to a green revolution.

Currently, the UK’s pipeline of offshore wind projects is approximately 30GW. This pipeline includes around 10GW of current capacity, along with over 7GW of capacity assigned at the fourth Contract for Difference (CfD) leasing round earlier this year; the UK Government’s primary mechanism for supporting low carbon generation projects.

To reach the ambitious target of 40GW capacity by 2030, research suggests that almost £50 billion of investment will be required, equivalent to one turbine being installed every weekday for the whole of the next ten years. Further to this, new analysis from Imperial College London[3] shows that the UK will need to at least double its 2030 offshore wind target and roll out new grid-connected batteries at an unprecedented speed and scale if it is to deliver net zero emissions electricity by the middle of the next decade. Rapid investment and technology roll-out is therefore required if the UK is to become, as the prime minister stated, “the Saudi Arabia of wind”.

However, the large-scale roll-out of this capacity is problematic given the current regulatory framework for developing and connecting offshore wind (into individual point-to-point connections). It goes without saying that major legal improvements and streamlining of the current consenting process will be required to deliver offshore wind farm projects at that speed.

In July 2020, the government announced a review into the existing offshore transmission regime, with the aim of ensuring that future connections for offshore wind are delivered with increased coordination while ensuring an appropriate balance between environmental, social and economic costs. As part of this review, on 14 July 2021, Ofgem launched a consultation looking into the proposed changes to the existing regulatory regime to enable developers to make changes to coordinate the delivery of projects currently in the planning process. The consultation also takes a holistic look into how coordination in the delivery of future projects can be achieved, specifically the projects announced in the Crown Estate’s latest leasing round (Round 4). The hope from this consultation is that the short- and medium-term barriers to achieving greater coordination can be resolved.

Despite these challenges on a policy-level, Copper’s latest research on Public Attitudes to Low Carbon Energy Generation shows that low carbon technologies are becoming established in the public’s mind. Offshore wind and solar emerged as the top choices for what technologies the government should prioritise to deliver future net zero energy generation. Our report also shows that people want to see economic opportunities arise from the transition to net zero, including the export of new British technologies. These significant opportunities are recognised on an industry level, with a £100m Offshore Wind Growth Partnership set up to recognise the economic opportunity created by the 40GW target and to accelerate national supply chain development.

The expansion of new offshore capacity is one of many challenges (and opportunities) that the UK faces in meeting its net zero targets. There is a general optimism about the positive progress of clean energy solutions and offshore wind in particular, however achieving net zero will require more coordination and collaboration than what was required in the offshore wind industry to date.