4 ways offshore wind industry can boost innovation and investment

  • IEA’s annual offshore wind installation targets are set to increase from 6GW to 80GW by 2030.
  • The industry must look beyond the North Sea to develop sites in more challenging waters while continuing to attract investors.
  • We outline four key ways to accelerate innovation and develop emerging technologies to help meet these targets.

As part of a successful energy transition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced a few weeks ago that offshore wind should be installed at a rate of 80GW per year by 2030. Today the total installed capacity of offshore wind is 30GW. You’ve read this right – nine years from now, we should install nearly three times today’s worldwide capacity every year.

The offshore wind industry finally came of age last year. This is largely thanks to the reduction of the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCoE), which means offshore wind farms in Europe are competitive with other energy sources.

While this is true, the industry cannot be complacent. The need for innovation, and for technology pioneers, has never been greater.

To date the industry has focused primarily on developing the “low hanging fruit”. That means offshore sites, almost exclusively located in the North Sea, that are relatively easy to develop, with shallow waters, good soil and fairly reasonable weather conditions. It is here, where the retail price of energy is high, that technical advancements, economies of scale and efficiencies have seen the cost of development fall.

The North Sea is where all of the world’s 6.6GW of new offshore wind was installed in 2020. The IEA Net Zero by 2050 report asks governments and the industry to take this global.

If the industry is going to build 12-times more capacity per year than it is developing today, we are going to have to venture into deeper, more challenging waters across the globe. Doing this will require a focus on more advanced and more expensive fixed and floating foundations to withstand the typhoons, seismic activity and deepwater conditions that prevail around the world. An expert elicitation survey by Nature notes the floating offshore wind CapEx per GW in 2035 is expected to be higher than the 2019 CapEx for fixed-bottom. We need to do better.

To meet the IEA targets, the industry has to develop more technically challenging sites while continuing to attract investors. This will require outside the box thinking, including:

1. Enable innovation that brings scale and speed

The IEA estimates 50% of the technology needed for net-zero is not yet deployed. However, the offshore wind industry grew complacent with growth, and the barriers to innovation have never been higher. We need bolder, more nimble investors and technology pioneers to drive the innovation needed and focus on innovations that can bring speed to the industry and be applied at a global scale.

2. Protect IP, but don’t build walls

IP in offshore wind is a sensitive topic, with each of the big three turbine manufacturers involved in at least one mutual IP legal dispute in the last 18 months. Innovation will require investment, which should be protected, however this should not disrupt the development of game-changing technologies for the energy transition.

Today the technology exists to enable collaboration at the system level while protecting design IP at the component level. The same framework enabled the gigantic success of the electronic industry. We need to bring this mindset to the wind power industry – fast and collaborative innovation is what Moore’s law is about, not transistors.

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3. Digital certification: faster plan to deployment and safer

Technology exists that can accelerate development, improve the quality of risk and build investor confidence to deploy new concepts at the Giga Scale. By simulating wind farms before they are built, developers can openly share detailed engineering certificates of the exact current condition, giving investors assurance that their assets around the world are performing as expected.

4. Mainstream emerging technologies to accelerate innovation

Europe has clearly articulated its focus on “green digital”. By this, it means that winning the transition will also mean deploying enabling technologies that deliver scale and speed – often digital in essence. That’s good policy thinking. They will produce the significant shift in innovation curves needed to address climate change. And remember, not every digital product is a new innovation curve – be careful to select 21st century digital tools – they are often orders of magnitude more powerful than the legacy digital tools. To mainstream these game-changing technologies we need a pull from the industry and a push from investors.

Next steps for the industry

Each of the points above culminate in the same conclusion: the offshore wind sector must continue to act with the pace and hunger of its early days, and more, as it grows, commercializes and aims at global scale. Developers and their supply chains must create room for true innovators to test the next generation technologies that will allow the industry to meet the hugely ambitious, but absolutely vital challenge set by the IEA. Big industry can be cumbersome and slow but together we can make sure our pace is compatible with the IEA 2030 targets. Humanity loves nothing better than a tough challenge – let’s get to work together and win this race.

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