With a single sweep of their 220m-wide blades, each of the General Electric turbines at the Dogger Bank wind farm will be able to generate enough electricity to power a home for two days.
The project off the coast of Yorkshire is a key part of Boris Johnson’s ambition to quadruple the amount of offshore wind to 40GW by 2030, helping the UK meet its legally binding target of cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
His plans have increasing support from energy developers, many of whom are keen to ramp up their portfolio in renewables and burnish their green credentials.
But experts are growing worried that the slow-moving and complex bureaucracy governing the seabed is ill-equipped to meet such ambitious goals.
A recent report by KPMG and energy giant SSE found wind farm developers are being held back by uncertainty and long waits as they navigate the extensive list of permits and tenders needed to get projects off the ground.
Evolution of the largest commercially available wind turbines
“The current offshore marine and planning licensing regime is not fit for purpose for scaling up the levels of annual offshore wind deployment needed in UK waters to achieve net zero,” it said.
“[The model] is creating uncertainty and longer planning timelines for project developers. It is often described as creating a ‘race to the water’, instead of promoting a coordinated approach.”
Wind power projects can take a decade or more to get approval. They have to go through several processes, from winning seabed licensing rounds and subsidy auctions to getting planning permission and connections set up with the grid.
Added to that, parties from environmental campaigners to fishermen must have time to have their say on major projects.
Calls are now growing for a rapid overhaul of the planning rules.
“The biggest barriers to achieving the 40GW offshore wind target are non-financial… [they are in] planning, consent and grid connections,” says Simon Virley, lead energy partner at KPMG UK and a former top energy civil servant.
“There needs to be a proper review of these non-financial barriers if we are to hit the Government’s 2030 deployment target and put the UK on a path to net zero.”
There is about 10GW of wind capacity installed in UK waters, with Sweden’s Vattenfall, Denmark’s Orsted, and Germany’s RWE and E.ON among the big players involved, making the UK the world’s largest offshore market.
Wind powers a quarter of the UK’s electricity
Another 20GW in the pipeline is likely to be up and running by 2030, but much greater strategic thinking is required if that is to grow, experts say.
Even if the 2030 target is reached, almost the same capacity again is likely to be needed by 2050.
As well as the wind turbines themselves, the UK also needs to make best use of them by storing excess power as hydrogen or exporting it via interconnectors, all of which adds to pressures on space.
“It’s really quite a crowded sea space,” says Pavel Miller, head of corporate affairs at SSE Renewables. “And you have habitat protection as well, which is really important. One question for the Government to consider is whether we have a consenting approach that reflects that we’re in a climate emergency… That doesn’t only just mean speeding up decisions, but also making some of those hard decisions around how we prioritise use of the space.”
Wind density map
Environmental groups are also frustrated. Helen Quayle, policy officer at the RSPB, says outdated planning systems “put both nature and net zero in jeopardy.”
She adds: “We are calling on Westminster to change how we manage our seas and the way we plan much needed renewables to find joint solutions for climate and nature which revive our seas and secure the future of our seabirds.”
Authorities recognise work is needed. A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK already generates more electricity from offshore wind than any other country, and we continue to break records, with wind turbines powering nearly half of the electricity grid on a single day.
“We are committed to building on this success to achieve 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, which is why we have pledged £160m to upgrade the infrastructure supporting wind farms on our coasts, and are constantly reviewing the design of our offshore networks.”
Government, industry and environmentalists are now discussing how best to make sure the sector can sustainably meet demand at pace.
Hitting the 40GW by 2030 target will “require a fundamental shift in the way we think, plan and deliver infrastructure across the UK”, says Graeme Cooper, project director at National Grid.
Duncan Clark, head of Orsted’s UK business, claims Britain has little to lose and much to gain from doing so, particularly given competition from other global seabeds, and the training and jobs that depend on projects.
“If things are late at the front end, then the supply chain tends to hold back in the investments they need to make,” he says, adding the pace of seabed leasing needs to increase. “There’s no regrets upgrading our approach …we’re going to be carrying on doing this for decades to come.”