Not so fast, Mr. Johnson! Wind’s 3 key questions

Wind convert or post-Covid opportunist? UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has to flesh out his ‘Build Back Greener’ plan before we can answer that one.


October 8, 2020

Wind convert or post-Covid opportunist? UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has to flesh out his ‘Build Back Greener’ plan before we can answer that one.

At the Conservative Party’s annual conference on 6th October 2020, Johnson gave further details of his plans to turn the UK into the “Saudi Arabia of wind”. He set out his government’s commitment to use wind power, and specifically offshore wind, to power all of the 14million homes in the UK within a decade.

His pledge to invest £160m in ports and infrastructure is intended to help the UK to reach offshore wind capacity of 40GW by 2030, which is an increase of 10GW on the UK’s previous 2030 target.

He also announced a plan to achieve 1GW of installed floating wind capacity by 2030, which would build on the UK’s leadership in this sector.

This plan is intended to create 2,000 construction jobs and support 60,000 more in ports, factories and the supply chain. This is intended to help UK offshore wind firms compete globally, and can be seen as part of the response to widespread redundancies and lack of opportunities caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s also big with Brexit just around the corner.

Understandably, the reaction from offshore wind is positive. The excitement that met May 2019’s offshore wind sector deal has gone up a notch.

We could pick any number of comments. Ørsted’s head of UK region Duncan Clark called it “great news” and “the most cost-effective way to achieve the UK’s net-zero ambitions”, and Red Rock Power’s CEO Guy Madgwick said the plan sent a “clear and encouraging message to developers and suppliers”.

However, ambition is one thing. Delivery is quite another.

Johnson’s opponents in the Labour Party said this was mainly a PR-led plan to offer a positive vision and distract from his government’s failings on Covid-19. That’s to be expected. But there are legitimate practical questions from those in wind about how the government plans to deliver on a vision that requires an offshore wind turbine to be erected every weekday of the 2020s.

Here are three of the biggest questions.

First, it’s all very well to earmark £160m for port and infrastructure upgrades, but anyone with experience in UK offshore wind will know just how low strike prices have gone in recent Contracts for Difference auctions.

The low auction prices have resulted in pain across the supply chain as firms struggle to deliver projects at low cost, with the result that British suppliers have been losing out to cheaper overseas options.

This is a point taken up by Pat Rafferty, secretary at union Unite Scotland, who said the offshore and onshore wind sectors in Scotland are “on life support” as a result of this trend. If UK suppliers can’t win that work then it damages the potential of offshore wind to create local jobs, regenerate coastal cities and win local support.

Therefore, the first question for Johnson is this: in the light of these low strike prices, how can you guarantee that you will deliver on your promise that 60% of the content of offshore wind farms will be made in the UK?

Second, we must look at the transmission system. UK energy regulator Ofgem declared in February that the UK offshore wind transmission system wouldn’t be able to meet a goal of 40GW installed offshore wind capacity by 2030. Ofgem also said it would work with National Grid on a “more coordinated offshore transmission system”.

So, the second question is: how can you make sure the grid is ready to cope?

Finally, we note the big part missing thus far from Johnson’s vision of the UK being the “Saudi Arabia of wind”: onshore wind. If he wants wind farms to be the backbone of the electricity system then it seems crazy to ignore land-based wind farms in the government’s upcoming energy white paper.

That means our third question is: will you further loosen the restrictions that stop most onshore wind projects bidding for support in upcoming Contracts for Difference auctions?

If Johnson wants to be seen as greener than his predecessors, these are three questions he needs to answer. They’ve all gone unanswered for too long.

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