Back in March, plans were announced for a £1.1 billion artificial island in the North Sea at Dogger Bank, designed to serve as a hub for the construction and operation of European offshore wind farms, and a point of interconnection between six nations.
With its own harbour, housing and a runway, ‘Dogger Island’ sounds like something out of an episode of Thunderbirds. And since it won’t be complete until 2050, the plans might resemble science fiction – particularly for a European audience that isn’t accustomed to new islands springing up in the middle of the sea.
But the fact that serious plans are on the table does say a lot about how the scale of ambition for renewable energy has grown. It also raises inevitable questions about what the industry will look like in 33 years’ time.
For the firms currently plying their trade in offshore renewables, the project may pose a long-term threat as much as it presents an opportunity. How might crew transfer and ‘floatel’ vessel operators respond to the changing modes of operation the island hub will bring? As a European initiative, how big a share will UK firms get post-Brexit? And will many of the functions currently fulfilled by these firms on today’s offshore wind farms even exist in 2050? It’s inevitable that there will be considerable consolidation in the market before then.
Looking ahead has always been the habit of the renewable energy sector as it focuses on meeting long-term targets. Likewise media reports of ambitious projects and exciting new technologies help to perpetuate the image of a highly progressive sector that it worthy of support in the short as well as the long term.
But this fixation on the future – combined with the fact that the goalposts are always shifting, with targets being pushed back and revised – does mean that it can be hard to get a true grasp of exactly how much progress has been made, and whether this progress corresponds to the original ambition.
It is clear that ambitions are being realised – some more quickly than anticipated – when it comes to the scale, cost and reliability of renewable energy. New wind energy installations, both on- and offshore, have rapidly expanded in size – from the sub-50MW scale to multi-gigawatt projects. Solar is now starting to see a comparable increase in scale.
At the same time, new technologies are being commercialised that will assist with the move into new operating environments – with floating wind and PV projects (affectionately dubbed by some media outlets as ‘floaters’) on the rise.
And new records for power generation are continually being cited to show how renewables compare with conventional generation.
The question is, do these milestones really mean anything? It’s ultimately a near impossible to task to take stock and ask whether every firm in the sector is satisfied with the progress that it has made.
Although it’s important to get a handle on what has been achieved to date, perhaps it isn’t the individual milestones that provide the real indicator of how far the sector has moved on, but the increasing scale of its ambition.
That’s why Dogger Island is such an exciting proposition.
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