The U.K. government rejected Vattenfall's Thanet Extension offshore wind project on Tuesday, adding to a growing sense of frustration in Britain's world-leading offshore wind sector stemming from permitting delays at several other key projects. 

Offshore wind is critical to the U.K.'s climate and energy targets, but three huge projects have seen permitting delays in recent months: Vattenfall’s Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas projects, each 1,800 megawatts, and Ørsted’s 2,400-megawatt Hornsea 3. The approval decisions for Hornsea 3 were supposed to have been made last October. The government has pointed to complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic for the delays with Boreas.

On Tuesday the government rejected Vattenfall's Thanet Extension project, citing its impact on shipping off the Kentish coast. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) rejected the project after office hours. The extension project would have added 340 megawatts to Vattenfall's existing 300-megawatt Thanet project site, which was the world's largest offshore wind farm for a time after its completion in 2010.

While there are no tangible signs that the U.K. government’s long-term commitment to offshore wind is wavering, unease is growing in the industry.

"If further delays are imposed [on] projects like these, the target of 40 gigawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030 will not be possible,"  said Danielle Lane, U.K. country manager for Vattenfall, in an email. "This in turn will mean that the U.K. no longer has a stake in the claim to being a leading offshore wind market."

Government relations begin to show cracks

Relations between the U.K. government and the country's offshore wind industry have been largely positive in recent years. A 2019 "sector deal" between the industry and government set a mutually agreed upon course in areas like local content and supply-chain development. The Ministry of Defence has been working proactively to relieve the impact on radar and aviation.

The U.K. has 8.5 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity in operation today, more than anywhere else in the world, and the country recently jumped its 2030 target from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts. The government has established a trusted tendering process via the contracts for difference program.  

Still, the recent delays have left developers unsettled.

“Norfolk Vanguard is one of the most innovative and ambitious offshore wind projects in the world,” Vattenfall's Lane said. “Yet this is now the second time it has suffered a delay, despite addressing all of the major concerns raised during the planning process."

“Coming so soon after the decision on Norfolk Boreas was pushed back until October, the offshore wind industry will be left wondering about the government's intentions for this sector,” she said.

Vattenfall is assessing its options for the Thanet Extension project. The Swedish utility can challenge the rejection via a judicial review, but that process only looks at whether the original decision was lawful, rather than re-evaluating the project’s application.

BEIS did not respond to GTM’s questions regarding the industry's concerns.

Delays for offshore wind have consequences, Vattenfall warns

The latest permitting delay imposed on the Norfolk Vanguard project is for one month. But even modest delays have an impact, Lane said. “For every day that goes by without a decision, there are consequences for the next phase of the project, so it's vital that there are no further delays,” she said.

Ørsted’s massive Hornsea 3 project has also been pushed back by one more month. “We are obviously disappointed not to have a decision on our application for Hornsea Project 3,” an Ørsted spokesperson told GTM in an email.

“We remain confident that Hornsea 3 is a viable project, which can play a vital role in helping the U.K. reach its legally binding net-zero targets in an environmentally sustainable way. […] It’s important that momentum is maintained across the industry and we eagerly await the decision from the Secretary of State on July 1," the spokesperson said.

Any U.K. energy projects larger than 50 megawatts must apply to the national government for a Development Consent Order. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the wheels of permitting have continued to spin for other projects. Since the U.K. entered lockdown in late March, two major energy projects have been granted their consents by authorities in London: the Riverside Energy Park and Cleve Hill Solar farm.