Offshore windfarms have been the surprise success of government energy policy. The east coast has been a leading contributor. But as so often, a lack of strategic planning, and competing commercial incentives, are throwing up problems. This week’s announcement of government approval for another project creates more anger among people along the affected routes, and highlights the dilemmas
Offshore wind has been a surprise success
Offshore wind farms are growing rapidly, and making a growing contribution to plans for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions. In 2009, only 2 percent of the UK’s electricity was generated from wind. By 2020 that had risen to 24 percent, well above the government’s 20 percent target planned in 2009. The cost per Kilowatt Hour (kWh) has fallen dramatically. Although wind energy can only be a part of our energy mix (since the wind doesn’t blow all the time), this is a major contribution to our net zero ambitions.
In 2019 the Hornsea One windfarm was the first to generate over 1 gigawatt of electricity, enough to power a million homes. The three projects recently approved off the Norfolk coast will each generate twice that, and there are more in the pipeline, here and off Suffolk. The location and current generation of offshore sites can be seen here.
The government now plans for 40 gigawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030 and 75 gigawatts by 2050. In response, a growing list of developers are preparing plans for new offshore windfarms. But every new project has to bring its electricity ashore and connect to the National Grid.
And there two green agendas collide.
Windfarms want to dig trenches
The East coast is prime territory for wind farms, but it seems that government did not anticipate the speed of growth, with multiple separate projects all going ahead at once. Each of these has its own plans for connecting to the national grid. The result looks like being an environmental blow, especially for Norfolk, where there are currently five proposals under development.
Connecting to the National Grid means laying heavy cables across Norfolk. They will also require booster stations, modifications to a substation at Norwich, and at Necton (between Swaffham and Dereham) and new power lines across the East of England to send the new supply onwards.
On current plans this means clearing three strips of land 40 miles long and over 40 metres wide. It is the equivalent of laying 120 miles of motorway across rural North Norfolk. During the work there will be heavy construction traffic across much of the County. Local Councils claim that, on a “realistic worst case scenario”, there could be 1000 HGV movements a day on often narrow roads. When finished there will be restoration work, but rural ecosystems takes decades, to recover, not months.
These fears have raised real concerns among local communities along the routes, and a group of 80 Parish and Town Councils has formed to call for reconsideration of the plans.
And this is not an issue for Norfolk alone. Similar issues arise in Suffolk, where a series of similar projects is in progress,
There is concern about this in Parliament and a national Off Shore Electricity Grid Task Force (OffSET) of MPs and County Councillors, led by Bernard Jenkin MP (Harwich) and Jerome Mayhew MP (Broadland). has been formed to argue for better solutions.
There is a better answer
The protestors all support offshore wind energy, and stress that this is not a “not in my backyard” objection. There is an alternative, which has been proposed and developed by National Grid.
This is an offshore “ring main” cable to run offshore round the East coast, linking to the grid at the Humber or the Thames, where the onshore infrastructure is already in place. Each windfarm would then connect to the main at sea, removing the need to carve trenches across the landscape.
The National Grid’s feasibility study for this Offshore Transmission Network suggested that if this model were implemented by 2025, it could save £6 billion, halve the length of onshore cables, and be very much less socially and environmentally damaging than the current plans.
However, the technology for this solution is still developing, the planning is inevitably complex, and takes time. The National Grid’s Offshore Coordination Project expects to publish plans to have the network in place by 2030. But the Secretary of State, in a detailed 60 page approval letter for the Vattenfall Vanguard project, concluded that speed should take priority over the concerns of local people .
“The Secretary of State has balanced the substantial harm arising from landscape and visual issues against the substantial and pressing need for renewable electricity sources and considers that the latter should prevail. He does not consider that his decision should be deferred or that the onshore elements should be refused pending the outcome of the OTNR [Offshore Transmission Network Review].“
The best answer, or the quickest?
The three projects already approved (Orsted’s Hornsea 3, and Vattenfall’s Boreas and Vanguard) all hope to be operational within 4 years, and there are a further three planning to complete between 2027 and 2033. Understandably, they are reluctant to delay, and if they do, the government may miss its 2030 targets for wind generation.
Government is “encouraging” the companies planning new projects to opt in to the emerging Offshore Transmission System. It remains to be seen whether they decide to do so. Local people along the 120 miles of potential cable track, and the councils campaigning to change the plans, hope that they can be persuaded.