Cruising with a wind farm lobbyist
Dick Durham goes for a sail and hears from an expert why offshore energy is here to stay
W herever the yachtsman sets sail in UK waters he’s never far from the twirling blades of some distant windfarm because while Britannia no longer rules the waves, the Queen does, and as the landlady of the sea-bed she charges rent for power created there.
Her business, the Crown Estate brings in cash, 75 per cent for the Treasury and the rest for the Buckingham Palace coffers, from wind, wave and tidal power generation. The biggest of these is offshore wind power, which brings in £28 million anually from wind farm leases alone.
From the London Array to Linconshire, Barrow to Blyth and Thanet to Teesside, there are now 29 fully operational offshore wind farms with a capacity of 5,355 megawatts (5.3 gigawatts) of power, which produced 5.4 per cent of the UK’s total electricity consumption in 2016.
That megawatt figure is set to double in UK waters – now dubbed the ‘Saudi Arabia of Offshore Wind’ – over the next few years with the construction of a further 12 offshore wind farms, including the massive Hornsea Project 1, which could result in a man-made island, airstrip and harbour on the Dogger Bank (See YM News, Summer 2017 issue).
Yachtsmen have expressed fears of the navigational hazards these giant sea-bed implants can create, from the new Rampion farm off Brighton, which stands smack bang in the middle of a favourite cross-Channel passage plan, to its Suffolk sister, the Galloper farm, and other new farms including those off Northumberland, North Wales and Aberdeen.
So we asked Julian Brown, the 54-year-old chairman of the wind industry trade association RenewableUK, who also happens to be a lifelong yachtsman, to put our minds at rest. I joined Julian aboard
Arcturus of Lymington, his Jeanneau Sun Fast 42, at his pontoon berth in Woolston, near Southampton, for a daysail while he talked. After casting off we dropped down the River Itchen and Julain laid the first
myth to rest, by reassuring me that windfarms are not off limits to the leisure sailor. It might still be worth avoiding them in strong winds, but not because of the turbines.
In winds of 40 knots or more, the turbine blades rotate and change pitch – ‘A bit like heaving-to’, said Julian – to give minimum resistance, shutting down automatically. So when the whole farm stops moving, any seaman worth his salt should stay well clear anyway as, for obvious reasons, wind farms are usually built on offshore shoals – not the place to head for in heavy weather. There was no fear of that today as we drifted in light summer breezes down past Ocean Village towards Southampton Water.
‘Wind turbines have to regulate power in different wind speeds, just like on a sailing boat, except we do it by reefing and then eventually go bare poles’ said Julian. ‘As experienced skippers we understand the power in the wind and how to capture it but also how to respect it.’
Sceptics have long dismissed wind energy as a white elephant but as Julian points out, the power industry is privatised, ‘so the only motive is being able to sell the energy.’
He adds that although wind farms have been subsidised to get the industry started, this is easing and the costs of building them are coming down rapidly as research and development advances; and in any
case, oil, gas and nuclear energy are all subsidsed, too. OK, he would say that wouldn’t he? Yes, as a lobbyist for offshore wind he would, but consider this: the greatest investment going into renewable energy is in China, a country not noted for environmental compassion.
Arcturus of Lymington has a retractable bowsprit, which Julian fitted, as he knows just how important it is to get clear air. With the kite on the end of the sprit, there's enough of a slot for the genoa to fill without flowing dirty air into the spinnaker. To him it is a case of fitting the correct kit to harness the free power of the wind.
‘Carbon dioxide, without any doubt, is driving climate change, so long-
term burning of fuels like coal and oil, which would require carbon capture, is too expensive. Gas is lower carbon but not CO2 free. Nuclear energy has its hazards and is also proving expensive. The energy the wind and sun supply is free, all we have to do is continue building the apparatus to catch it,’ Julian said.
He believes yachtsmen are among the more enlightened when it comes to the UK’s energy dilemma because we face the same challenges afloat.
‘Where does my power come from when I’m aboard?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘I can charge up from my smelly and noisy diesel engine, of course. Fuel cells are attractive but expensive. I’d prefer to use shore power, but I can only do that in a marina. I could use solar panels on deck, but only when the sun’s shining. I can use a wind generator, too, but only when the wind’s blowing…every yachtsman will make different choices on different occasions, but he will understand the beauty of wind power, perhaps better than anyone else.’
But Julian is not blind to the limitations of offshore wind power: ‘The UK needs a portfolio of energy sources just as we have on our boats. The growth of renewable electricity is progressing alongside significant improvements in weather forecasting – essential for our grid operators to stay ahead of the game and regulate all the different energy systems.
‘Again, sailors understand this: we think ahead and treat energy as a valuable commodity, saving it when we can and using it wisely. Do we turn the fridge off because the autopilot is hungry and let the drinks go warm? The sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. We understand the choices.’
Our cockpit now looked like a down tools in a rope factory: cordage everywhere from sheets and guys, halyards and downhauls.
‘The number of people now employed in the offshore wind industry runs into tens of thousands. People work in construction and installation, planning and development, transport and other support services,’ Julian said.
The industry has given a major boost to areas long suffering from economic decline and unemployment including Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Hartlepool, Workington, Barrow and Liverpool.
And in the heart of the UK’s
most popular sailing area, The Solent, the manufacturing of turbine blades is now so advanced it is hoped soon that the 270 jobs provided by the alliance of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Vestas Wind Systems on the Isle of Wight will result in a healthy export market – MHI Vestas Offshore Wind has already announced it will be exporting blades to a German offshore wind farm. At the Isle of Wight factory the longest turbine blades in the world are being built. At 80m, nearly the length of Manchester United’s ground, these blades serve the powerful V1648MW turbine.
Just one of these broke the world record for power output in 2014, producing 192,000 units of electricity in a day, enough to power 45 UK households for a year. A single rotation of one of these turbines could power a BMW i3 for 40 miles.
There have been concerns expressed by environmentalists that the sonar used in sea-bed surveys for the foundations of turbines may be having a damaging effect on mammals. The beaching of sperm whales in The Wash last year remains a mystery, but it is known sonar can damage their brains.
The jury is still out on this particular issue, and whale beaching has been occurring for hundreds of years, long before offshore wind technology was invented, but Julian said that the industry goes to great lengths to limit impact on the marine environment, using ‘bubble curtains’ around foundations to reduce piling noise during installation, for example. Offshore wind companies work closely with organisations such as Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation to understand and mitigate the potential effects of projects on wildlife. The industry also undertakes extensive environmental studies before starting construction.
Perhaps the strangest boost to offshore wind power has come, by default, from US President Donald Trump. Industry sources say that since he pulled America out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, global support for renewable energy has actually increased.
The industry predicts that the UK will have 10GW-worth of offshore windpower by 2020, enough to supply 10 per cent of electricity for the UK’s total power supply and 15GW by 2025.
The lonely whirling towers at sea are set to grow in great numbers, and while they will not replace more conventional power sources for many decades, their presence will not just add to the mix, but will serve as collective flagstaffs for enlightened and progressive energy policy.
Accurate weather forecasts allow power companies to compensate for light winds
Wind farms are here to stay, and will continue to grow around the UK coast
Dick and Julian get sailing as the wind fills in, while they discuss wind power ABOVE: Yachtsmen may not like offshore wind farms, but they understand managing limited energy with renewable resources
All current UK offshore renewable energy projects, including tide and wave power Active/In operation Under construction Consented In planning Pre-planning application Wave site Tidal site
It may appear daunting, but yachts can sail through wind farms, as long as construction has finished
The UK is one of the most suitable sites for offshore wind power in the world