Thursday, 21 August 2014

Offshore wind energy: will innovation be driven from constraints?

Eric Steltzer - Senior Consultant

In today’s modern world, we are constantly striving for progress. It is expected that lights will turn on when they are needed, trains will get people to their destinations quickly and mobile phones can access the latest facebook posts from even the most remote Munro peak. Progress is built on the bedrock of stable and secure infrastructure, which requires constant enhancement and renewal to meet our increasing demand. With a growing and shifting population and the need to site new infrastructure within a densely populated area like the UK, we are presented with a significant challenge.

The siting challenges in the energy sector are greater still. The Government is looking to reduce the cost of electricity in particular and last year passed the Electricity Market Reform measures which strives to provide the financial security required to raise capital to fund projects ‘off the books’. At the European level we are also seeing leaders working to develop a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Our energy market will need to site new types of infrastructure which have greater security, lower carbon intensities and minimise costs.

My interest in environmental planning of infrastructure projects originated in 2001 when an offshore wind project was proposed in the waters near Cape Cod, Massachusetts U.S.A. This area had been my playing ground growing up and I have a special attachment to it from my days of catching striped bass from its waters. The project interested me because it was the first time I experienced like-minded environmental groups pitted against each other with claims of how the project would mar the ocean views, or that it would solve all of our climate change concerns. These comments revealed less about the actual benefits or impacts of the project, and more about the deep values people held for the natural resources of the sound.

While the project in Massachusetts is an ocean away, the public sentiment towards renewable energy projects and the requirements for rigorous environmental assessments are common place here in the UK. The public consent process grapples with questions about noise impacts, disruption to protected wildlife species, or the effects on housing prices. These factors can constrain the siting of these needed services and drive up costs for the whole industry. Public consultation features strongly in the consent process and Temple are running a training course on it in early December.

The offshore renewable energy market will face considerable constraints on growth from finding suitable locations. At the same time the Crown Estate has an ambitious goal to have 10GW of electricity capacity by the year 2020, a tripling of the current capacity. The cumulative impact assessments have been a focus in the industry as a greater number of sites are approved. This combination of market need with significant constraints present fertile ground for innovation and UK ingenuity.

Innovation in setting the boundaries of the development of the technology can help protect the environment whilst ensuring that we can deliver the infrastructure that we all need. At the RenewableUK annual conference in Manchester on 11-13 November, I will be presenting on environmental economic methods that can gauge people’s value for the marine environment, such as ocean views. It will hopefully produce a lively discussion on the merits to these techniques and whether it can add value to current methodologies.

This innovation challenge presents big questions. How will the market respond to the Contracts for Difference (CfD) mechanism in the EMR? Is £100/MWh by 2020 achievable for offshore wind? Can wave and tidal energy technologies become financially viable for wider commercial use? Is a European super grid possible? 

These questions intrigue me. Similar to the environmentalists who are pitted against each other in Massachusetts, it is the underlying values I find so important: creating jobs for people in the UK; protecting our environment; and supporting affordable energy for vulnerable populations. These are common core goals behind the questions, and they are goals that few people oppose. It is through these common values that we can find mutual partnerships to overcome hurdles, and drive new insights to accomplish our joint aspirations.

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