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Turbines rise above the water at the Aberdeen Bay offshore wind farm in Scotland. The Aberdeen Bay farm, with its 11, 8.8-megawatt turbines, started producing electricity in July, 2018.Peter Tertzakian/Handout

The captain pulls back the throttle as the boat chugs close to the foundation of a towering wind turbine, where it meets the cerulean of the North Sea about three kilometres off the Scottish port city of Aberdeen.

The Aberdeen Bay farm, with its 11, 8.8-megawatt turbines, is relatively small, but it’s a vital cog in Britain’s ambitious goal to deliver 50 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

Its importance is not so much in the power it generates, which is around 93 megawatts, but in its role as an early demonstration of what can be done with the plentiful and powerful winds that buffet this part of the world.

The project was the most powerful in the world when it started producing electricity in July, 2018. Donald Trump fought it tooth and nail for years in the Scottish courts, arguing that the towers would spoil the view from his golf course. He lost, and was ordered to foot the government’s legal bills.

By the end of 2023, Britain had more than 11,000 wind turbines scattered on and off its shores, with a total installed capacity of 30 GW. That makes it the country with the sixth-largest wind power capacity globally, though it’s still far short of world-leader China, which has about 10 times as much.

The International Energy Agency reckons global offshore wind capacity may increase 15-fold by 2040, attracting around US$1-trillion of cumulative investment driven by falling costs, supportive government policies and what it called “remarkable technological progress,” including larger turbines and floating foundations.

Canada has talked big about using wind to power hydrogen production, which it sees as a crucial tool in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But it’s a laggard when it comes to offshore development.

There are no operational offshore wind farms in the country, though more than 3.6 GW have been proposed, according to a 2022 study by the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank. It noted that Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes and the Labrador Sea have the greatest potential for offshore wind.

Federal climate plans contain no firm offshore targets, but Atlantic provinces are eyeing the sector. Nova Scotia is planning to offer leases for five gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, for example, and Newfoundland and Labrador recently signed an agreement with Ottawa to allow the province to take the regulatory lead on offshore wind projects within its inland bays.

Britain’s goal to up the ante on offshore wind is part of its own plan to reach net zero by 2050 – a binding target it enshrined in law in 2019. It has the five largest operational offshore wind-farm projects in the world, and the share of electricity coming from renewables has risen to almost half today from 7 per cent in 2010. As a result, it has phased out coal generation altogether; the last major plant is closing this year.

Scottish waters will hold the bulk of offshore wind projects required to meet Britain’s 2030 goal. According to Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, an electricity distribution network operator, the north of Scotland – which has just 5 per cent of the population – will contribute 16 per cent of Britain’s entire net-zero goal.

Around 37 gigawatts of offshore wind leasing agreements are already in place, said Kirstanne Land with SSEN, acknowledging that the company has only a short time to deliver a lot of network infrastructure.

“Essentially, we need to double the size of our network by mid-2026, then triple it by 2030,” she said. “Obviously it’s very tight in terms of time scale.”

Scotland is already a net exporter of energy, most of which heads south – a fact not lost on residents who attend public consultations about the transmission infrastructure projects that will be crucial to linking offshore wind to the British grid.

“A lot of passionate Scottish people don’t like the concept of Scotland generating power to basically power England,” said Thomas Nicoll with SSEN.

Even though offshore wind and net-zero goals have broad cross-party political support, Mr. Nicholl acknowledged that the concept of heavy construction and power lines snaking across the peaceful Scottish highlands hasn’t sat well with everyone.

Although SSEN is already working on benefits for communities that will house transmission infrastructure projects, Ms. Land said coming national guidelines for community benefit funds will also be helpful.

Scotland has grouped offshore projects together in rounds, giving the small country a strategic advantage that has allowed it to nail down supply chains in a world where many countries are racing to decarbonize. “It’s been a game-changer,” Ms. Land said.

Allan MacAskill is one of the world’s industry leaders in offshore wind. He helped pioneer the first deep-water projects and, in 2013, started the Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm in the North Sea – now the world’s largest floating wind project.

An engineer by training, Mr. MacAskill co-founded Flotation Energy PLC in 2018, after spending the first half of his career in the oil and gas sector, including a stint with BP in Calgary.

Flotation has won a number of contracts over the past few years to build wind farms off the coast of Scotland. In his office in Aberdeen, however, Mr. MacAskill voiced frustration that government departments seem to be busy fighting each other instead of working together to support the wind sector.

“But we’re getting there,” he said, adding that the needs of many different users of the sea – fishing, marine, military, wind – must be balanced, along with onshore community input.

“The truth is that mostly these things take longer than you expect, and they are more difficult than you expect,” he said.

And it bothers him that it’s more difficult to get consent for an offshore wind farm than an oil field.

“Ultimately, the rulebook for the oil fields was set in the 1970s, and the rulebook for the offshore wind farms was set in the 1990s. And the world had changed,” he said.

“If we want to get rid of fossil fuels, if we want to transfer to a lower-carbon environment, we have to build things – unless we want to go back to the Stone Age.”

That means improving permitting processes and making sure consultations and government departments stick to timelines.

“Governments really do have to get their act together,” he said, “and work out how to move it forward.”

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