Boris Johnson’s bold new vision for offshore wind to power every home in the UK by 2030 would require almost £50bn in investment and the equivalent of one turbine to be installed every weekday for the whole of the next decade.
The wind energy industry has become one of the country’s most prized industrial success stories. In the past 10 years the capacity of the UK’s offshore turbines has grown from 1GW to almost 10GW at the start of 2020, and building costs have been driven down by almost two-thirds.
The government’s new plan has emerged as central to Britain’s aim to “build back better” after the coronavirus crisis towards its 2050 climate goals. But the prime minister’s green agenda will still need to clear multiple hurdles to prove that the promise of billions in investment and much-needed green jobs can be delivered.
Keith Anderson, the chief executive of Scottish Power, one of the largest investors in Britain’s renewable energy industry, said there is “no shortage of capital or investor appetite in offshore wind” but the pace and scale of the industry’s growth will depend on the government’s ability to grant new seabed licences and project contracts at record speed.
The government plans to attract investment from the private sector through a major contract auction next spring, which will also include support for onshore wind and solar power projects for the first time in four years. This upcoming auction alone could secure more than £20bn of investment and create 12,000 jobs, mainly in the construction sector, according to RenewableUK.
“I am absolutely confident that the industry can achieve this,” said Anderson. “My only nervousness is that people will start to see the 40GW as a cap. We should achieve that, and power past it. We are going to need far more clean electricity.”
The government is under pressure to produce a programme of measures that will show the UK is taking its net-zero target seriously, as host nation of the crunch UN climate talks, Cop26, which have been postponed by a year because of Covid-19.
So far, the only sizeable green measure in the chancellor’s rescue plan has been a £3bn scheme for home insulation. Even with the push to offshore wind, that still leaves a lot to be done to reach net zero.
Lady Brown of Cambridge, deputy chair of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “If we’re to reach net zero UK emissions by 2050, we’ll need to see similarly bold commitments to cut emissions from our buildings, industry, transport and land.”
There are also doubts about whether the green jobs the government says will accompany the offshore wind expansion will materialise. At least 60% of the “content” of offshore wind farms will be made in the UK, the government has promised.
Sue Ferns, from the trade union Prospect, said the prime minister’s desire to kickstart a green jobs revolution has been set out before, but “the reality has never quite matched up”.
“There is a long way to go,” she said. “The number of green jobs is still below 2014 levels despite repeated promises from the government, partly due to particular supply chain jobs being created overseas. If the prime minister’s plan for wind is to have anywhere near the promised impact on jobs then it needs a credible plan for a functional UK supply chain.”
The government’s £160m investment in upgrading the UK’s ports to manage the size of a new generation of mega-turbines will help to create supply chain hubs in port communities which face economic decline.
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the “much-needed commitment to invest in port infrastructure” should be matched by “a clear focus on low-carbon skills” to help to grow domestic supply chains and create jobs in the sector.
But Britain will need to move fast to catch up after the head start clinched by its European neighbours, according to Dennis Clark, a 40-year North Sea oil and gas veteran who chaired Offshore Group Newcastle, a supplier to oil platforms.
Clark said the companies building offshore wind farms currently in the UK were sourcing the high-value end of their supply chain from their own countries, including Spain and Norway, and from low-cost countries such as Dubai, where working conditions and standards were lower.
“We have missed out on tens of thousands of jobs, which have gone overseas,” he said. “Brexit gives us the opportunity to change that.”