UK offshore renewables: encouraging investment

UK seabed managers

14 August 2017

The Crown Estate has collected and shared data to encourage investment in UK offshore renewables, as Chelsea Bradbury explains

The British offshore wind sector meets around 5% of the country’s annual electricity demand, and is on track to hit 10% by 2020. The UK is leading the field in this area, with roughly the same number of offshore wind turbines in our waters as there are across the rest of Europe.

Yet less than 20 years ago this market was in its infancy, and as manager of the UK seabed, the Crown Estate had to understand how to unlock commercial value for the industry offshore.

As recently as the millennium, when the first wind turbines were installed in UK waters, investment in the sector was a challenging proposition: costs remained comparatively high, the supply chain was patchy and the technology was young. Alongside this, prospective developers had to start from scratch to carry out the research required to assess a project’s viability – which covers everything from weather data to seabed conditions and habitat studies.

Effectively the ‘seabed landlord’, the Crown Estate has rights to award commercial leases for offshore renewable energy projects. We took a proactive approach to bring the industry together and encourage collaboration, helping to remove risks from the planning process and attract investment. In doing so, we helped to make the seabed a more productive asset, both for us as a business and for the UK economy.

Marine Data Exchange

As part of this approach, the Marine Data Exchange (MDE) was born, to provide a resource for offshore energy customers and prospective developers to store, manage and share data throughout the lifecycle of a project – from feasibility and consenting surveying through to construction and operation.

This resource, the first of its kind in the world, gives anyone with an interest in the marine environment free access to a pool of shared research, and by enabling collaboration, has helped to de-risk investment offshore.

The MDE is now one of the world’s biggest sources of offshore renewable data, with more than 500 new surveys added since 2015. Sixty per cent of all survey work completed by the Crown Estate’s renewable energy customers is freely available via the platform, and includes research not only on offshore wind projects but wave and tidal schemes and marine aggregates as well.

More than 7,700 data sets were downloaded from the site last year by a growing number of consultants, developers and academics, as well as visitors from the government and NGOs. It is also attracting increasing interest from across the world, with users logging in from countries including the USA, which launched its first operational offshore wind farm last year; Taiwan, one of the key target export markets for firms in the UK’s offshore wind supply chain; and the Netherlands, which is now home to one of the most mature markets in the sector.

We have seen huge advances in the UK’s offshore wind industry, in terms of technology, capacity, delivery time and, most importantly, price

Since those early days, we have seen huge advances in the UK’s offshore wind industry, in terms of technology, capacity, delivery time and, most importantly, price. As the latest statistics from technology innovation and research centre the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult show, the average lifetime cost of energy agreed for projects that reached final investment decision stage last year was £97 per MWh, already below the industry’s target of £100 set for 2020.

Moreover, as the Chief Executive of trade association Renewable UK Hugh McNeal commented, there is every expectation that the next generation of offshore wind projects will come in at even lower cost, reaching prices beneath those agreed for new nuclear schemes, including the recent Hinkley Point deal.

There are now 1,463 wind turbines in operation in UK waters, taking up less than 1% of our total seabed, and contributing 5.1GW of capacity to the nation’s energy mix. The wealth of data that has been collected over the lifetime of these projects, now consolidated in the MDE, has a continuing role to play in helping the industry on its path towards maturity – while for us as ‘landlord’, it helps to make best use of the prime real estate beneath UK waters.

Chelsea Bradbury is Marine Data Advisor for the Crown Estate

Further information