This year, despite the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, renewable energy accounted for 90% of new electricity generation. In the next five years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects renewable sources to overtake fossil fuels as the world’s dominant form of electricity generation.
One of the most promising renewable energy sectors is the formidable offshore wind industry. At its maximum potential, offshore wind production could reach more than 120,000 gigawatts (GW), or 11 times the projected global electricity demand in 2040. Even if the world only develops its most feasible, near-shore wind sites, those projects would still provide more electricity than we consume today.
And the good news doesn’t stop there. Offshore wind projects are expected to employ 900,000 people globally over the next decade, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.
Here’s a look at the rise and future of this promising renewable energy.
The Appeal of Offshore Wind Farms
After hydropower, wind energy is the second-largest generator of electricity among renewables. But the future of onshore wind farms is limited, particularly by land constraints as well as public opposition to developments near where people live. In contrast, offshore wind farms not only have the vast ocean for potential developments, but also face less resistance because they’re located off the coast, away from where people live.
The main advantage of locating turbines offshore, however, is that they’re able to generate more energy in the ocean. Since wind is both stronger and more consistent off the coast than on land, the largest offshore wind turbines can produce between 14 to 15 megawatts (MW) of power, while the largest onshore turbine only can only reach about 4 to 5 MW, according to Martin Anderson, head of renewables at Aurora Energy Research. He also notes that offshore turbines are only getting bigger, which will make energy production even more efficient.
“Those offshore wind turbines in the future are going to be absolutely enormous, producing much more power than onshore wind ones would,” Anderson told Global Citizen. “They will also be producing more power for more of the time as well.”
That’s why some scientists have speculated that offshore wind projects could theoretically power all of humanity.
The grand promises of offshore wind farms have led countries to bet big on the technology. The UK, for example, plans to derive one-third of its electricity from these projects by 2030. While the UK currently leads the way in offshore wind production, countries around the world are beginning to take advantage of key wind sites off their own coasts. China, for instance, is one of the fastest growing markets for this renewable energy and is expected to host more than one-fifth of the world’s offshore wind turbines by the end of the decade.
Bigger Turbines, Lower Prices
While the first offshore wind farm was installed in Denmark back in 1991, the industry didn’t see much progress over the next two decades. This was partly due to the lack of logistical capacity and multitude of technological issues that had to be sorted out. It was also because the projects were incredibly expensive. Not only did those interested in offshore wind need funding for the turbines, but also for the technology that transports the generated energy to land.
In recent years, however, the cost of offshore wind has declined dramatically. Within a decade, the offshore market in the UK saw prices fall from £150 per megawatt hour (MWh) to £40, according to Anderson. Globally, the price of offshore wind power in 2019 plunged by one-third from the previous year, while onshore wind power decreased by 6% during the same period.
The reason prices dropped so quickly is because the industry expanded in scale, creating bigger and more powerful turbines, according to Tom Harries, head of wind research at BloombergNEF.
“Essentially, when you’ve got more powerful turbines, you need less of them; and [fewer] turbines means less installation and equipment,” Harries told Global Citizen. “It also makes offshore wind farms cheaper to operate because you’ve got less equipment to service. So in the space of three to four years, offshore wind went from being very expensive to being pretty competitive.”
This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy, things continued to look up for offshore wind. In fact, the industry had its busiest six months ever in terms of investment. In the first half of 2020, offshore wind financings totalled $35 billion, exceeding 2019’s record full-year figure of $31.9 billion.
What’s Next for Turbines
Within the next decade, many more offshore wind farms will begin operating in growing markets like the UK, France, China, Taiwan, and the United States. Emerging markets in Southeast Asia and South America will also likely start to receive investments and develop projects, Harries said.
“Offshore is a big growth sector within the wider renewable space,” Harries said. “While we expect the onshore wind market to be fairly flat in terms of new wind farms added every year, for offshore, we expect it to catapult upwards around sixfold from today’s numbers by the end of the decade.”
In terms of employment, this boom could create close to 1 million jobs over the next decade. In the US, where there is currently only one operating offshore wind farm but more than a dozen projects in progress, the industry is expected to generate up to 83,000 jobs and $25 million in annual economic output by 2030, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
As pollyanna as it may sound, this is only the beginning of offshore wind. The sector is already working to improve its technology with floating turbines that are able to access waters up to half a mile deep. The expansion beyond near-shore sites to deeper waters will allow the industry to operate in areas where the world’s strongest and most consistent winds blow.
As this next era of offshore wind emerges, engineers will also have to deploy more resilient structures that can potentially withstand hurricane-level winds. If catastrophic winds collide with a turbine, it can cause lasting damage. But the energy potential of offshore provides more than enough incentive to invest in the future of the field.
Hywind Scotland, the world’s first floating offshore wind farm, has been operating for three years now and generates enough electricity for more than 20,000 homes. Its presence so far off the coast has been promising, especially as it remained afloat and generating power during Hurricane Ophelia in 2017.
As countries shift away from fossil fuels and toward decarbonization, the demand for renewable energy will continue to fuel innovation in the offshore wind sector. Each turbine rotation is one bit of energy closer to moving beyond fossil fuels once and for all.