The Golden Age for Offshore Wind


A conversation with Tom Hopkinson, CEO.

Wind energy, particularly offshore wind, has shown some incredible advances over the past few years. Subsidy-free offshore wind, enormous 8MW turbines, floating wind parks that open up deep-water installation sites, and grid-parity are making wind (along with solar) THE cheapest option across all energies, renewable or otherwise.

So I sat down with our CEO, Tom Hopkinson, to discuss exponential technologies, the future of renewables, and what it means for jobs in the sector.

Three or four years ago, the industry was aiming to get offshore wind prices under £100 per MW, so to see recent tenders of £57/MW signals unbelievable progress.

Wind turbines are becoming increasingly enormous. For example, Dong’s Burbo Bank wind farm in the Irish Sea boasts 32 turbines and a single rotation of the 80m blades can power a home for a whole day.

Wind Energy Europe’s 2017 high scenario would see 716,000 people employed by 2030, almost double where we are today.

But as we increase in scale, and energy generated per employee increases, where will these jobs be?

Tom – At Taylor Hopkinson we are doing some work at the moment to map the market and looking at where the jobs are going to be. The most labour-intensive part of the market is the manufacture of the turbines.

With the bigger turbines you are looking at an employment factor of 15.6 years per megawatt. When you compare that to solar which is 1.3 employment years per megawatt, it’s a lot more labour intensive to build these giant turbines. After manufacture, of course, O&M and construction will be major areas for job growth.

It’s amazing to see the price of the offshore wind tenders that were won recently. £57 per megawatt was beyond peoples wildest dreams only three or four years ago. Getting below £100 would have been a great result by now and to be that far below it is unbelievable. It’s a great accolade for the people that made it happen- lots of clever people, lots of engineers making things bigger, better, faster, lighter, cheaper.

How does this all translate to jobs?

Tom – It means lots of offshore wind will get built. We’re competitive with gas, we are competitive with nuclear and it’s no longer just the green agenda piece that’s driving the growth of the market. It’s actually the cheapest cost of energy you can get, full stop. Green, brown, black, whatever, it stands on its own two feet and that’s what the industry has been working towards since the 70’s.

Since I got involved 14 years ago, the industry has really come of age and we are seeing more institutional investors get involved which is a key indicator of an industry that is reaching maturity. What I’m excited about now is seeing the offshore wind industry coming to life in Taiwan. North America looks like it’s going to get off the ground as well, which is exciting, and who knows where else it’s going to crop up? India are looking at it, China are starting to gather a head of steam and Japan is pushing forward after Fukushima. It is a global industry and hopefully, we can grow to meet the demands of the industry wherever it is in the world.

Right now, we’re at a tipping point where offshore wind isn’t just more sustainable, but the economics stock up too, which begs the question…

Are we now in a position to go all-in on renewables and bypass nuclear in our transition from carbon to 100% renewables?

Tom – I think we are still 20 or 30 years away from being able to master the engineering challenges of overcoming intermittency. If we look at the increase in global energy demand over the next 30 years, it’s massive. People are power-hungry, people are using power-hungry devices. Unfortunately, we can’t do it without those technologies right now and we probably won’t be able to for a little while longer.

But maybe we’ll surprise ourselves. Exponential innovation in technology is inherently unpredictable and we’ve surprised ourselves before. We never dreamt the cost of offshore would fall this quickly and we’ve seen unpredictable shifts happen in other industries.

If you look at transport, 10 years ago, the industry was betting on the hydrogen fuel cell because electric vehicles were ugly, impractical, and uneconomical. It took Tesla to push through the resistance and forge a path through better batteries, a charging network, and better performance. Now, not only are electric cars greener, they’re safer and they can drive themselves. But that’s another story.

We’re in a time where there’s a vortex of exponential technologies (Lithium-ion batteries, blockchains and smart contracts, AI, machine learning) that stack together to open up new possibilities. It’s easy to spit-ball how this might play out, but it’s impossible to predict with any accuracy what will actually happen. You can only peer so far into the future. It’ll be fascinating to see how this impacts the energy industry.

Maybe something will happen that makes intermittency obsolete?

Tom – You know what? You’re right, Marc.

We’re working with some really interesting battery storage companies. There’s one in particular (Salt-X) that uses a molten salt technology and there is a lot of smart money going into the business because the technology looks great. It’s cheap, it works, and it lasts for 30 to 40 years without needing to be changed.

The other long-long term solution which I’m fairly open to is fusion power.

There are nuclear reactors that use nuclear fuel from prior generations of reactors that use a fusion reaction rather than a fission reaction. Fusion is an abundant source of clean energy that uses existing waste that you can’t do anything with today. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be creating more waste but we’ve already created that problem, we might as well use it.

… So maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not as far away as people think.

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