Britain is fast becoming an energy superpower – not in oil or natural gas, but wind.
This country is renowned as one of the windiest places in Europe and that wind energy is being harnessed like never before. Plummeting construction costs, supportive government policies and a national drive to cut carbon emissions have turned Britain into a wind powerhouse, with more than 8,000 turbines generating enough electricity to supply 11 million homes. And there's more to come.
Wind power is in the midst of a revolution offshore, as ever-larger turbines are placed farther out to sea, generating more electricity at a fraction of the cost. Britain has become a world leader in offshore wind, with plans to build the world's largest wind farm in the North Sea, consisting of more than 400 turbines that will generate enough electricity to supply 2.3 million homes. Several other offshore projects are also in the works capable of powering another 3.5 million homes.
Offshore wind power is growing so fast that some experts believe that, within decades, wind energy could meet 40 per cent of Britain's total electricity needs, up from about 11.5 per cent today.
And all that technology is heading to Canada. The company leading the charge in Britain, Denmark's Orsted, signed an agreement last month to build the first offshore wind farm in Canada along the British Columbia coastline that will include 110 turbines.
"There's truly enormous potential for offshore wind in waters around northern European countries. And we feel the same potential exists in other parts of the world which is why we're looking at Canada and the United States as markets where we can achieve substantial scale as well," said Matthew Wright, Orsted UK's managing director.
The British government launched a major green-energy effort in 2008 when it enacted legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also started providing extensive support to low-carbon energy sources, including wind power. The approach appears to be working; emissions have fallen steadily and they dropped 6 per cent last year compared to 2015. Today, nearly 30 per cent of Britain's energy needs come from renewable sources.
Wind power has been a key part of Britain's green-energy strategy and, so far, most of the projects have been onshore. But onshore wind farms have fallen out of favour amid growing public outcry at the unsightliness of the towers and environmental concerns. In 2015, the government effectively banned further onshore projects, pushing the industry out to sea where it is thriving.
The wide-open sea has brought a host of advantages to the wind-power sector, including more space for bigger wind farms and access to stronger breezes. Some of these farms are 100 kilometres offshore and cover 450 square kilometres or more. The biggest advantage to going offshore is that the turbines can be gigantic.
Recent years have seen rapid advances in turbine technology as engineers design ever-larger towers that can produce higher volumes of electricity. The turbines in the sprawling wind farms off the North Sea coast will be roughly 30 per cent larger than those built 10 years ago and, at the peak of each rotation, the tip of the blade will soar 195 meters above sea level, the equivalent of a 40-storey building. Just one spin of these giant turbines can power an average British home for 29 hours. Experts say turbine technology is advancing so quickly that turbines could double in size within a few years.
"In the last 10 years or 12 years, we've seen the scale of turbines go from 3 to 3.6 megawatts to 8 or 9 megawatts. And the next generation will likely be 12 to 15 megawatts per turbine," Mr. Wright said.
Construction methods have also improved. Better foundation designs and floating turbine towers anchored to the seabed mean wind farms can be placed still farther offshore. Floating platforms also cut maintenance costs as the towers can be towed to shore for repairs.
All of this has combined to slash the cost of producing wind power. In just two years, the cost of generating electricity from offshore wind farms has fallen by nearly 50 per cent and the latest projects will be 40 per cent more cost-effective than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is under construction in Somerset, Engand.
The epicentre of Britain's offshore wind boom is here in Grimsby and nearby Hull, small port cities near the mouth of the Humber River along the east coast of England. Both cities have been hit hard over the years as the fishing industry declined and manufacturers closed down. Now they are being transformed by the offshore wind revolution and the area has become something of a gateway for green power. Both benefit from good port facilities with ready access to the North Sea, a haven for wind farms because of its shallow water and steady wind. In total, the offshore wind industry employs around 1,500 people in the area and that's expected to climb to 6,000 by 2032, according to a study by the University of Hull.
"It's entirely reasonable to start thinking about North Sea wind energy as taking over the economic role that North Sea oil and gas have played over the last half-century," said Michael Grubb, professor of international energy and climate-change policy at University College London.
The region has created a Green Energy Hub clustered around a new £310-million ($519.5-million) turbine manufacturing plant recently opened by Siemens. The German conglomerate expects to employ around 1,000 people at the facility once everything is up and running. There's also a £25-million improvement under way at the ports, making them better able to handle extra ships that maintain the offshore turbines.
The region has also become a key hub for Orsted, formerly Dong Energy, which operates two wind farms off the coast and is behind the plan to build the giant farms; Hornsea Project One, which will have 174 turbines producing enough power for one million homes, and Hornsea Project Two, which will have up to 300 turbines that can power 1.3 million homes. The company has also drafted plans for Hornsea Project Three in the same area, which will be twice as large. In total, Orsted is investing £6-billion in the area and is expanding its operation with new buildings and ships to carry maintenance crews.
Orsted, which was set up by the Danish government 45 years ago and is publicly traded in Copenhagen, has made a bold move into offshore wind, shedding almost all of its oil and gas assets to focus on wind. It's the world's largest player in the sector, having built more than a quarter of all offshore turbines, and has plans to expand into Asia, the United States and Canada. Steady returns from operating wind farms have also lured pension funds and Orsted has sold an interest in most of its projects to a wide variety of funds, including Canada's Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. In 2014, the Caisse paid $1.1-billion for a 50-per-cent interest in Orsted's London Array offshore project along the south coast of England.
In Canada, Orsted signed a letter of intent in September with Vancouver-based NaiKun Wind Energy Group Inc. to build the Haida Energy Field Offshore Wind Project – a 550-square-kilometre area in the Hecate Strait near Prince Rupert, B.C. The project is still at the approval stage and, under the deal, Dong will be the primary developer and operator of the wind farm which will initially produce up to 400 megawatts.
Other projects are planned for the east coast of the United States and suddenly wind power, once considered the poor cousin to other forms of renewable energy, is in vogue around the world. "This is a technology that everyone said was probably the most expensive way of producing renewable energy," Prof. Grubb said. "And, it turns out, it is a lot more developed than people thought."