Gauging the media and public reaction to the Contracts for Difference auction

Leo Murray, Director of Strategy at climate change charity start-up 10:10
Leo Murray, Director of Strategy at climate change charity start-up 10:10
8MW turbine at Burbo Bank Extension dwarfs 3.6MW units (Photo: DONG Energy)
8MW turbine at Burbo Bank Extension dwarfs 3.6MW units (Photo: DONG Energy)

As reported in ‘MJ’ and elsewhere, last month's high-profile Contracts for Difference (CFD) auction presented a very positive cost assessment of offshore wind and demonstrated that the sector can now produce power for under 6p per kilowatt hour – lower than the cost of new nuclear and new gas plants.

So, has the announcement changed the mood and outlook relating to the prospects for UK offshore wind energy amongst those sections of the national media that have typically held a negative view of the industry - as well as amongst the general public?

According to Leo Murray, Director of Strategy at climate change charity start-up 10:10, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.  In his view, the change in tone from publications like the Telegraph and the Times has been 'particularly marked' - with their coverage 'now touting the UK's global leadership in this emerging sector.'  In fact, he even argues that this has been an 'understated trend' for around a year now, but that the CfD results have allowed energy journalists and editors at these outlets to 'effectively break cover and be less equivocal - though their support is still tempered by the obligatory snark about public subsidies.'

"The Daily Mail still has yet to catch up, but presumably never will, and it is doubtful whether it can accurately be described as a 'newspaper' as such. Better informed energy analysts and commentators had been predicting a big drop in prices in this auction round, but I think it's fair to say the results exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic observers," he says.

Elsewhere, Luke Clark, Head of Public Affairs at RenewableUK, believes that, although the positive cost assessment 'doesn't change the need for an energy mix, it does change how we think about the costs of the choices we make in building that mix.' Clark also warns about being too 'bashful' about the scale of the offshore sectors' achievement in lowering the cost of the technology - and he argues that a cost reduction in the region of 50% in such a short time period is not something that is normally seen. He even goes as far as saying that, if another industry exists with a 'better track record of delivering multi-billion-pound energy infrastructure projects' he'd 'like to see it.'

When it comes to the general public, Murray argues that the reaction of is less clear, mainly because these 'huge and historic advances are not really on the radar of the British public.'  For him, offshore wind to date 'has been a conversation between the government and giant utilities, some of whom, like DONG Energy, are virtually unknown in the UK.'  For this reason, he thinks that the wider public does not really have a 'meaningful relationship' with this infrastructure, excepting what he describes as the 'isolated headbangers' who insist that 'some white flecks on an otherwise featureless horizon are somehow spoiling their view.'

"It is mostly a case of out of sight, out of mind.  I attended an offshore wind industry event in Grimsby during the week of the CfD auction announcements, and the excitement in the room was palpable - but not because of the historic cost falls.  Rather, local government and business leaders were excited about the enormous economic regeneration the new contracts promised to bring to the left-behind Humber region," he says.

"It was clear that these parochial interests in new jobs and local investment dwarfed any sense of their position on the frontier of a historic moment in the low carbon transition - the celebrations would have been just as enthusiastic if the contracts had returned prices of £100/MWh," he adds.

Commenting on the potential longer term impact of last month's news, Murray argues that the CFD auction proves that offshore wind is now competitive with conventional fossil power generation - and the 'simple fact' that the might of global market forces is now 'swinging behind these technologies will inevitably drag right wing news outlets along in the gravitational pull - even if they are likely to lag some way behind.'

More generally speaking, he strongly believes that the offshore sector must now strive to be 'much more imaginative in engaging the public with this very British low carbon success story.'  He also highlights the fact that public support for offshore wind across the UK tends to be 'very broad - around 80% at the last count - but shallow.' In his view, this is largely because people 'like the idea of it' - but generally perceive that it 'has little real meaning as it has no presence in their lived experience.'  He also relates the story of a leading stakeholder engagement manager, who recently told him that 'most British people will only ever engage with offshore wind technology in passing, when they see it on TV and think 'wow, that's big' - or as indistinct groups of structures on a distant horizon.'  Ultimately though, Murray points out that the best way to establish what he calls a 'meaningful connection' between the offshore industry and the public at large might be to 'allow ordinary people the opportunity to invest in these projects.'

"Building stakeholders means getting people to buy into the project - and literally allowing them to buy in could be a relatively simple and highly effective way to do this," he says.

"As well as pragmatic reasons why the industry may want to build a constituency of support for offshore wind, we think there is an important principle at stake here too: we all pay for the low carbon transition, through levies on our energy bills - and that means we should have the opportunity to benefit from it directly as well," he adds.

By Andrew Williams

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