Just five days after it left port in the UK’s Humber Estuary aboard the 132m Fred. Olsen Windcarrier’s jack-up Bold Tern in early February, turbine F18 became the first of what will be 174 7MW turbines to produce sustainable power at Ørsted’s Hornsea 1 wind farm. Situated 75 miles of the North Sea coast, the facility will ultimately be the world’s biggest windfarm once fully commissioned in 2020.

The 1.2GW project received financial approval just three years before the first turbine shipment and has claimed some significant world firsts along the way, including for its offshore reactive compensation station (RCS). “It’s amazing to think that just over a year ago we began offshore construction on Hornsea 1, and now it has already started to generate clean electricity,” says Ørsted’s project director Duncan Clark.

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A joint venture between Ørsted and Global Infrastructure Partners, Hornsea 1 is part of a £6bn ($8.7bn) investment project to develop a hub for the UK’s renewable energy sector in Yorkshire. First power from Hornsea 1 comes just months after what was then the world’s largest offshore facility, The Walney Extension, began generating power off the coast of Cumbria.

“This huge infrastructure project will provide much needed investment and energy security for our country,” says RenewableUK’s head of external affairs Luke Clark. ”It’s a great example of how offshore wind represents a massive economic opportunity to the UK and our coastal regions, creating new jobs and regenerating local communities in places like Hull and Grimsby, and bringing more than £20bn ($26bn) in investment around the UK over the course of this decade.”

UK announces Offshore Wind Sector Deal

Today, UK waters are home to almost 2,000 wind turbines across 36 sites, together producing almost 8GW according to the trade association – the largest capacity in the world according the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. By 2030, that figure will be 30GW if the Offshore Wind Sector Deal is a success.

The agreement, announced in early March, will see a further strengthening of government and industry ties as part of the Industrial Strategy to build a Britain Fit for the Future. Among the initiatives the deal has secured, the energy sector will invest £250m ($326m) over the next 10 years for new businesses within the supply chain, while a £115m ($150m) government Strength in Places Fund will support regions to develop their wind sectors.

“The Crown Estate and Crown Estate Scotland is undertaking a new round of seabed leasing in 2019, ensuring a sustainable pipeline of projects for the 2020s and 2030s,” says Luke Clark. The hope is that by 2030, direct employment will stand at more than 27,000.

An already flourishing supply chain was crucial to the success so far of Hornsea 1.

Speaking after the departure of the first turbine, Ørsted’s Clark said: “To make this next generation of wind farm possible, the entire supply chain has stepped up to a massive challenge. This has involved scaling up, improving products and processes, refining skills, and together leading offshore wind to its market leading position for new projects today, where it is now competitive on cost of electricity, on scale, on sustainability and on lead time.”

UK offshore wind – an international success story

Ørsted’s UK managing director, Matthew Wright, believes the whole industry is in good health and can only get better. “As the global leader in offshore wind, the UK is at the forefront of the global shift to green energy and now is the time to renew our mission to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system… As we continue to develop supporting technologies such as battery storage and demand-side response, we can build a future energy system powered by renewables, with offshore wind as the backbone of the generation mix.”

Branding the Offshore Wind Sector Deal a “truly significant moment,” he says it marks the coming of age of offshore wind as both a major part of the UK’s energy transformation and an industrial powerhouse driving economic growth. “It’s hugely positive news for the UK. The deal puts UK offshore wind right at the forefront of clean growth and is something we can take immense pride in as a country. Offshore wind is now firmly part of our modern Industrial Strategy and is a success story.”

The burgeoning UK wind sector is helping support a growing supply chain and jobs, known as ‘green collar’. The hope is innovation can be exported in coming years. “The UK-based offshore wind supply chain extends to every part of the country, selling goods and services not only to projects here, but also to more than 20 countries around the world,” says Luke Clark.

He adds an investment of up to £100m in a new industry programme, the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership, will help UK companies seeking to grow their business in the rapidly growing global offshore wind market, as well as a new initiative to develop skills for the sector.

Those skills might also be exported too, with plans announced by the government to develop a so-called ‘Offshore Energy Passport’ which will be internationally recognised and allow offshore wind workers to use their expertise in other offshore renewable and oil and gas industries, meaning they can “work seamlessly across different offshore sectors”.

Offshore wind is just part of the mix

However, Luke Clark says offshore wind is only part of the mix. “Onshore wind is playing an important role too, with more than 12GW generating enough power to meet the annual needs of more than 8 million UK homes.” Although wave and tidal power are in their infancy, he believes the UK is already a world leader in these technologies too, and they should be embraced. “We need to capitalise on our early lead; as an island nation, our marine energy resources are the best in Europe,” he continues.

Offshore wind is arguably a leading growth sector for the UK, with significant investment and huge potential to benefit from it, both in the UK and around the world. The concerted push to promote it by government and the sector itself won’t only benefit those working directly in the industry and within the supply chain, nor the homes and businesses it’s extending its reach too, but it could also prove hugely significant for communities across the UK, most notably those on the coast.

“Offshore wind also brings many other benefits to the UK in the long-term, such as the regeneration of coastal towns,” says Wright. “By setting ambitious targets and securing a long-term partnership between the government and the industry, the Sector Deal paves the way for further opportunities as offshore wind becomes the backbone of our low carbon energy system in the UK.”

However, Luke Clark cautions against focusing on just one element of the renewables sector, arguing diversity is critical. “We need a wide range of clean energy sources competing against each other to ensure that consumers get the best deal.” He says that although some onshore wind projects are being built using what he called  “innovative financial arrangements” such as Power Purchase Agreements, a further 4.5GW of shovel-ready capacity could be built if the government “would allow onshore wind to compete for government-backed contracts to provide power” too.

Wind sector growth set to continue

It’s clear offshore wind is proving to be a significant part of the UK’s energy mix, particularly given recent setbacks in the government’s nuclear ambitions. RenewableUK’s views on sharing investment are perhaps warranted but the success of the offshore sector is to be celebrated.

According to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy most recent quarterly update, however, 15 approved offshore projects are awaiting construction out of a total of around 300; the majority being smaller onshore facilities.

Hornsea Two, which will consist of 165 turbines and produce 1.2GW is currently under construction. Ørsted is currently awaiting approval for Hornsea Three, which will boast165  turbines and also produce 1.2GW.