(The author is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed
are his own.)
By Gerard Wynn
LONDON, June 14 Offshore wind costs must fall
even faster than the ambitious target of a 30 percent cut by
2020, which the British government and industry executives said
on Wednesday was achievable.
Britain is the world leader in offshore wind, betting on the
advantage conferred by its long, windy coastline.
Other countries developing offshore wind projects include
Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and China.
The target supported on Wednesday was to bring down the full
cost of power generation from wind turbines planted in the sea
to 100 pounds ($160) per megawatt hour (MWh) by the end of the
decade, compared with about 140 pounds now.
The cost-reduction target is challenging, but the trouble is
that even 100 pounds per MWh would still be more than double
present wholesale power prices, implying a large continuing
subsidy from British energy consumers.
Present day-ahead baseload prices in Britain are 44 pounds
per MWh <0#ELBUK-RTR>, based on generation largely from fossil
fuel and nuclear power plants.
Perhaps of even more concern for those placing bets on
offshore wind is that emerging technologies including solar
power also beat the 2020 cost target.
Developers say they can generate solar power at $120 per MWh
in sunny locations such as in the Middle East, and costs
continue to fall rapidly suggesting a real risk that even in
cloudy northwest Europe it will undercut offshore wind power.
Governments including Britain's are supporting
industrial-scale energy projects including offshore wind, coal
power with carbon capture and storage and nuclear with one eye
on jobs and investment.
The danger is that approach misses an energy technology
trend going in the opposite direction, towards smaller,
decentralised energy sources like solar and biomass waste, and
smarter, two-way, more flexible, responsive and connected grids.
Offshore wind is a challenging technology at the forefront
of wind power.
Installed turbines in 2011 were each far bigger than onshore
counterparts, at an average 3,700 kilowatts (kW) compared with
the 1,700 kW for average wind power, according to Danish
consultants BTM Consult.
As well being technically challenging, bigger turbines are
squeezing available deployment infrastructure, according to a
report by consultants IHS, published on Wednesday.
IHS also pointed to supply chain bottlenecks in the rapidly
emerging sector: "Developers continue to seek access to offshore
wind plant components amid bottlenecks resulting from the
nascent industry's supply constraints, especially for turbine,
vessel, and transmission capacity."
One key question is how far a cost squeeze caused by such
bottlenecks eases after 2015.
On the plus side, offshore wind achieves far higher load
factors than rival sources of renewable energy because of its
bigger turbines in more reliably windy locations.
Load factor is the proportion of a power plant's theoretical
capacity which it can actually convert into electricity.
However, another suggested advantage of offshore wind, that
it reduces landscape blight compared with onshore turbines, is
hardly a foundation for a major energy policy.
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
Offshore wind will certainly represent an increasing slice
of total wind installations, particularly in Europe.
The sector globally still hugely lags the onshore wind
market, with some 470 megawatts of offshore capacity added last
year (70 percent down on the previous year), according to BTM.
That's a miniscule 1 percent of the global wind market last
year. But some 4,000 MW is currently under construction,
according to BTM.
Financing will prove a challenge in the near term, and
ambitious targets may be overblown.
For example, the UK government is targeting up to 18
gigawatts of offshore wind by 2020 (more than a fifth of the
country's nominal power generating capacity now), assuming it
can meet the cost reduction targets.
Encouragingly, it assured on Wednesday that it would support
enabling infrastructure including transmission networks, a
favourable planning system and financial support mechanisms, all
vital to curb costs not only of offshore wind but rival
renewable, low-carbon technologies.
Wednesday's report, written by a group of public and private
sector actors, also included much-needed realism.
"We recognise that the years to 2020 present a short
timescale to overcome significant challenges to the sector's
costs, and require the industry to cut costs faster than would
otherwise occur naturally. Cost reductions need to get underway
($1 = 0.6432 British pounds)
(Editing by Alison Birrane and David Goodman)