Europe’s offshore wind ambitions have now been quantified. The U.K. and the 27 European Union nations are aiming for a combined 100 gigawatts of operation capacity by 2030.

Getting there is achievable, but to really get the most out of offshore wind’s potential, a host of other puzzle pieces need to fall into place. The offshore wind sector itself is only in control of some of these. The wider power sector, regulators and politicians all have a fundamental role to play.

From a technology point of view, however, the sector has done the heavy lifting.

Larger turbines are a “key enabler” of the ambitions in London and Brussels, according to Martin Gerhardt, head of offshore product portfolios at Siemens Gamesa. Beyond efficiencies from the sheer scale, fewer turbines per gigawatt also mean fewer foundations and less cabling.

“We can also increase the voltage levels from 33 kilovolts to 66 kilovolts, which reduces the cabling need again, but actually also reduces transmission losses, meaning we can produce more power,” Gerhardt said in an interview.

Another added benefit, often overlooked, is the savings in servicing and operations, he said. A larger turbine doesn’t require additional extra attention, so jumping from 8-megawatt to 12-megawatt turbines means that there will be one-third fewer turbines to maintain.

Larger turbines supersize the whole supply chain

The flip side of this scale, of course, is the knock-on impacts for turbine makers and the rest of the supply chain. Bigger turbines require bigger installation vessels with bigger cranes, which means deeper harbors. Larger blades and towers mean more dockside storage space.

This is one area where public-sector investment could help. The U.K. government is currently looking to grant up to £70 million ($94 million) to a port facility able to house a significant offshore wind hub.

Then there are the costs that come with getting a new generation of turbines off the ground. This week, Siemens Gamesa secured a €300 million ($365 million) loan from the European Investment Bank. The money will be used for research and development purposes including “optimizing the various components of a wind turbine, new applications for turbine maintenance and diagnostic services, and computer applications for optimizing processes and energy production, ranging from blockchain to reality virtual and artificial intelligence,” according to a statement from the company.

Another technological nut for the sector to crack is floating offshore wind. This week, DNV GL forecast that it will take until 2050 for the cost of floating projects to align more or less with where the U.K.’s fixed-bottom projects are now.

Gerhardt said the sector needs to refine the design of foundations on offer from the 30 competing concepts jostling for development at present. He expects a system with a smaller structure and mooring lines to eventually win out.

But having plenty of seabed space for fixed foundations reduces some of the urgency to develop the floating market. On the fixed front, Gerhardt is confident that bigger turbines will boost the technology’s value, with savings being directed toward the more expensive foundation.

Jobs versus cost

Another issue for politicians to address is balancing the competing desire for cheaper and cheaper offshore wind power with creating as many local jobs as possible.

Søren Lassen, head of global offshore wind research at Wood Mackenzie, told GTM this summer that COVID-19 recovery plans had shifted the focus for a lot of policymakers toward job creation.

The revised U.K. contracts-for-difference auctions will require projects over 300 MW to stick to a local supply-chain plan. Failure to deliver enough local benefits will lock projects out of the system. The precise details are still being hammered out.

Gerhardt said there is too much focus on manufacturing jobs. As new markets develop, such as Poland and the Baltic nations, the expectation is that new factories will follow. But this may not be realistic, he warned. 

“It works, maybe, for some very large markets. But for the majority, it won't work, and it creates a hurdle,” he said. The end result would be high costs and overcapacity.

Gerhardt doesn’t expect Siemens Gamesa to change its European manufacturing footprint before 2030, with its existing facilities able to handle the planned growth.

On the other hand, there are plenty of growth opportunities for service jobs lasting the full lifespan of a plant, as well as a host of other local supply opportunities.

Siemens Gamesa operates the largest blade manufacturing facility in the world in Hull, U.K., and Gerhardt said finding the vast number of qualified staff required to operate the factory had been a challenge. He’d prefer to see governments focusing on spreading new skills so that a trained workforce is in place for the offshore boom.

Beyond offshore wind

Offshore wind is only one cog in the works for the energy transition. A renewables-heavy grid throws up some new challenges. Complementary and enabling technologies are very much on the company’s radar.

Siemens Gamesa is developing its own heat-based long-duration storage system, and on Thursday it began a pilot for islanded green hydrogen systems. Getting 100 GW of offshore wind not just connected but connected in an efficient manner means tearing up the rulebook.

The European Commission’s offshore wind strategy includes multinational offshore wind grid planning. Greater regulatory flexibility for cross-border energy collaboration is also on the way.

Two-thirds of the €800 billion of investment outlined in the commission’s offshore wind strategy is for the grid, a sign that the challenge is being taken seriously, said Gerhardt. 

Aligning the EU member states on permitting where possible and streamlining these processes are core components of the European Commission’s strategy. Coastal nations have been asked to submit maritime spatial plans by the end of March 2021. With a provisional screen by the EC, planning concerns around natural habitats and bird species can be avoided early on, rather than requiring further attention and mitigation from developers late into the process.

If all these challenges can be adequately resolved, European offshore wind’s ambitions should be achievable, Gerhardt said. To be clear, they may take some time to get going, he added. 

“We expect the bulk of these projects (100 GW) in 2025 and later,” with permitting the cause of the delay, he said. “As for the supply chain, I think we are in good shape, and we are starting to prepare for the growth.”