Environmental conditions are often among the key limiting factors in determining how effective a particular form of renewable power generation will be. Hydroelectric dams require large rivers and bodies of water; solar panels need consistent sunlight; and wind turbines need to be built in relatively remote locations, where buildings and other structures don’t get in the way of wind blowing across their path.

In response to this last constraint, wind power is increasingly shifting off land altogether, with offshore wind, turbines, and farms built in the sea, able to generate power unhindered by urban blockages and maximise the potential of wind power.

Scotland is one of the keenest adopters of offshore wind, investing considerably in what could still be considered an emerging energy source. A report from the Scottish Offshore Wind Energy Council (SOWEC) published this year notes that the first offshore wind farm was built just 30 years ago, with Scotland only adopting the process 10 years ago.

The SOWEC report also points out that Scotland is among the fastest adopters of offshore wind, having built 2.3GW of capacity in the decade since the first offshore farm, with another 2.9GW agreed upon. A further 10GW of new projects are set to be approved by upcoming leasing rounds as part of the ScotWind offshore wind project.

Beyond these achievements, Scotland has also reformed its leasing process to encourage further investment in offshore wind. Orchestrated by Crown Estate Scotland (CES ), the Innovation and Targeted Oil and Gas (INTOG) leasing round aims to provide “low-carbon electricity to power oil and gas installations and help to decarbonise the sector”. If successful, it could operate as a bridge between Scotland’s productive, but polluting, oil and gas industry, and its high-potential, yet unproved, wind-powered future.

A new leasing process

“This process is specifically designed to help the decarbonisation of the oil and gas sector in Scotland, and will work within the wider energy policy framework set out by both UK and Scottish Governments,” explains Colin Maciver, head of offshore wind development at CES.

The project is currently in its early stages, with Marine Scotland still finalising the areas of the seabed that will be made available for wind turbine construction, and then CES will open submissions for licences, as part of what it calls a “competitive leasing process”. The two bodies will then work together to help selected projects reach their potential, with CES granting exclusivity agreements to successful applicants, and Marine Scotland assessing the projects moving forward.

This collaborative approach also relies heavily on technological innovation, with projects demonstrating innovative approaches set to receive particular attention. According to the INTOG public summary documents, projects involving fuel types such as hydrogen, or those that help decarbonise the Scottish oil and gas supply chain “in alignment with Just Transition principles” could be the most likely to receive funding. Scotland is looking to invest in both technological innovation and projects that deliver responsible social change.

The INTOG initiative aims to unite the apparently contradictory states of oil and gas powered by wind by awarding leasing rights to build offshore wind farms specifically to provide low-carbon electricity to power oil and gas facilities. The move may not tackle the inherent pollution associated with the sector, but it is one that will work to decarbonise the oil and gas supply chain more broadly.

The project is also aimed at encouraging the development of smaller projects, those with a capacity of less than 100MW, and those incorporating newer technologies, such as hydrogen as a fuel source.

High potential, high impacts

“Scotland has huge potential for the development of offshore wind,” said Maciver. “In fact in the years to come it could generate more than enough electricity to power every home in Scotland.”

Considering this potential, it is no surprise that Scotland is investing heavily in new offshore wind power. Another of CES’s projects, the ScotWind initiative, is already in full swing; this project has a broader approach than the INTOG scheme, awarding licences to large-scale offshore wind projects without the condition that their output must go towards the oil and gas sector.

This combined approach, of targeting different scales and functions of offshore wind power, demonstrates CES’s interest in establishing a new, renewable source of power, and decarbonising its already long-standing oil and gas industry. Scotland is aiming to reach net zero across its industries by 2045, yet is hampered by the fact that oil and gas remains a key driver of the economy.

Accounting for £8.8bn in gross value added to the Scottish economy in 2019, any serious attempt to decarbonise the country’s energy mix will have to tackle the oil and gas industry in some capacity.

“It is hoped that this leasing will form a key part of Scotland’s transition to a low-carbon economy,” says Maciver, who went on to highlight the potential impacts on the oil and gas supply chain as a whole. “The oil and gas industry employs thousands of people around Scotland, and as such, has a wealth of skills and knowledge in offshore energy that can be successfully transferred to new green technologies like offshore wind.

“We already know that the development of offshore wind is going to play a big role in the UK’s energy mix for a long time to come, and that it will be a key part of Scotland and the UK’s efforts to get to net zero,” Maciver continues. “We also know that Scottish waters are very well placed to play host to major projects, so this leasing opens up further opportunities for that.”

Challenges and optimism for wind in Scotland

As with any project of this ambition, challenges remain for CES. Chief among these is the fact that an oil and gas industry powered by wind remains an oil and gas industry, and the use of renewable power as its energy source will likely not offset the inherent environmental damage the oil industry can do.

There are also logistical obstacles associated with any kind of large-scale ramp-up of industrial processes such as this, and it remains to be seen if CES and Marine Scotland’s joint approach to licencing and monitoring offshore wind projects will prove to be effective at managing such projects in practice.

Maciver, however, considers that the potential environmental and logistical benefits of embracing offshore wind mean they ought to be pursued, regardless of such potential challenges.

“Our role and remit is specifically focused on the leasing of seabed for offshore wind, so we want to do all we can within that role to reduce the carbon association with offshore energy production in Scotland,” Maciver explains. “To not take this type of step to allow offshore wind to play a role in reducing the carbon emissions of oil and gas platforms in Scottish waters, we would be missing a big opportunity.”

There is also optimism to be found in the ScotWind project, which has already attracted interest from some of the world’s largest wind companies. In September, wind power giant Ørsted announced bids to construct wind farms as part of the ScotWind licencing round, and if successful, would see the company invest a mammoth £12bn into the project.

This would provide more than 8.5GW of electricity if fully realised, the majority of Scotland’s target for future offshore wind capacity delivered in a single bid.

INTOG in particular could also benefit from the UK’s broader strategy for hydrogen power, which aims to generate 9,000 new jobs and deliver £4bn of investment by 2030 as the UK continues to look for alternate fuel types that will remain viable for the long-term. Brian McFarlane, co-chair of SOWEC, was notably optimistic about Scottish offshore policies, and their role in the UK’s clean energy future.

“Offshore wind is at the heart of a successful energy transition,” McFarlane said in a statement. “Scotland has a world-class supply chain working in oil and gas and maritime engineering. [A recent SOWEC] report highlights the readiness of Scottish companies to shift into hydrogen, and also sets out a route map on the political, economic, regulatory, and technological steps needed to enable the transition.”