Offshore wind energy - a continuing European success story

The first 25 years of the offshore wind industry have changed many European seascapes
The first 25 years of the offshore wind industry have changed many European seascapes (Photo: bastiaan
Turbine outputs have increased from 2 to 8 or 9 MW
Turbine outputs have increased from 2 to 8 or 9 MW (Image: WindEurope/ Bickley)
Andrew Canning: Wind Europe
Andrew Canning: Wind Europe
Industry Database

Thirty years ago, the European wind energy sector was nothing more than a nice idea - however, since then it has mushroomed into an international business employing many thousands of people and generating ever greater amounts of renewable energy.

So what have been the key milestones in the development of the European offshore wind energy industry over the last thirty years?  And what are the prospects for the ongoing growth of the sector?

According to Andrew Canning, Press and Communications Manager at WindEurope, offshore wind energy is 'rapidly moving from being a niche technology to a mainstream supplier of low-carbon electricity' and he confirms that there is currently 12.6GW of offshore wind operating in Europe.  The history of the sector on the continent stretches back to 1991, when the first offshore wind park, consisting of eleven 450kW turbines, was established at Vindeby off the coast of Denmark.  Following this humble start, Middelgrunden, the first large-scale offshore wind farm in Europe was completed in 2000 off Copenhagen, with 8,500 shareholders in a Danish cooperative sharing 50% ownership of the 20 Bonus 2MW turbines. Two years later, the Horns Rev offshore wind farm opened in the Danish North Sea, consisting of 80 Vestas 2MW turbines.

Of all the countries in the European sector, the UK stands out as the strongest performer - and remains the world's largest generator of offshore wind energy.  Since humble beginnings in 2000, the generating capacity in UK waters has been steadily rising, supplying more and more of the country's electricity annually. Unlike onshore wind, offshore wind projects in the UK are leased in a series of licensing 'rounds' co-ordinated by The Crown Estate, the landlord and owner of the seabed.

The first scheme in the UK started operating as a pilot project in December 2000 at Blyth Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Northumberland.  It was created by an international consortium, including E.ON, Shell Renewables, NUON and Border Wind.  Hot on the heels of the Blyth project, The Crown Estate launched its 'Round 1' licensing phase in 2001 - involving 18 sites across England and Wales, with a potential capacity of 1.5GW.  In 2003, the first project to reach full operation as part of this Round was the 60 MW capacity North Hoyle Offshore Wind Farm in Liverpool Bay, becoming the first offshore facility in Wales, as well as the first major offshore renewable power project anywhere in the UK.  Round 2, issued in 2003, led to the establishment of projects located further offshore and in deeper waters across three strategic areas - Greater Wash, Greater Thames and Irish Sea.  Between them, these projects added another 7GW of capacity.

Round 3, launched in 2010 was the biggest so far, comprising a total of nine zones across the UK, with a combined capacity of 25GW.  Then, in 2012, one of the world's largest offshore wind farms opened off the coast of Cumbria.  A partnership between DONG Energy and Scottish and Southern Energy, the Walney Wind Farm has a capacity of 367MW - generated by a total of 51 turbines.

In addition to the Crown Estate-led Rounds, there is also a further development programme underway in Scottish Territorial Waters overseen by the Scottish government.  One notable recent development came in 2009, when Hywind, the world's first operational deep-water floating large-capacity wind turbine, was towed to a site in the North Sea.  Since then, the Norwegian multinational has been given the green light to install larger 30MW Hywind units off the coast of Peterhead in Scotland, with initial operation slated for later this year.

Across the continent, in 2010 ten North Sea countries announced plans to work together to develop an offshore electricity grid - and, in 2011, the 2MW WindFloat became the world's second floating offshore multi-megawatt wind turbine as it commenced generation 5km off the coast of Portugal.

More recently, a Dutch tender brought offshore wind on a par with conventional power generation as DONG Energy surprised the industry with its record-low bid of €72.7/MWh for the Borssele I and II wind farms in 2016.  In the same year, Vattenfall amazed the market with a winning bid of €49.9/MWh for the Danish Kriegers Flak offshore wind project - and, in April this year, the results of the German offshore tender further shook up the energy business as EnBW and DONG Energy announced the world's first subsidy-free offshore wind farms, to be developed by 2025.

Looking ahead, a Spokesperson at RenewableUK, believes that the upcoming result of the second Contracts for Difference auction round 'could determine new capacity for offshore wind commissioned in the 2020s.'

"Further auction rounds could also help new offshore projects currently in the pipeline to be built out," they say.

"There is also huge potential to grow offshore wind in different markets.  Both the USA and China have ambitions to build offshore wind at scale. The USA recently completed its first offshore wind farm off the Rhode Island and China spent $4.1bn on offshore wind in 2016," they add.

Meanwhile, Canning predicts that offshore wind has an 'enormous potential' for expansion over the coming years, and he reveals that WindEurope expects the sector to produce 7-11% of Europe's total electricity demand by 2030.  Ultimately, he claims that Offshore could in theory generate between 2,600TWh and 6,000TWh per year at a competitive cost - €65/MWh or below, including grid connection and 'using the technologies that will have been developed by 2030.'

"The industry has been on a steep cost reduction curve and has met its self-imposed target of €100/MWh by 2020 ahead of time. Winning recent bids for auctions in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark also delivered up to 48% cost reductions compared to projects just two years ago," he adds.

By Andrew Williams

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