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Offshore wind decommissioning risks could impact government’s green energy targets

Government’s Energy White Paper sets outs plans to deploy 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030 but researchers have warned that decommissioning older installations and loss of skills could impact the sector’s ability to deliver on the target.

The research team from the University of Kent has said that 1,600 wind turbines currently in use must be decommissioned by 2030 and some 300 of which will reach the end of their service lives before 2025.

The team called for urgent action to use the time between now and 2030 to prevent safety lapses, potentially huge costs and the irretrievable loss of the skillset required for safe decommission. The investigation found that there no existing breakdown of the potential costs of the activities that would surround decommissioning offshore wind turbines, nor is there is an alternative plan to their decommission.

An industry specialist close to one of the leading offshore wind installers told NCE that, while some older wind turbines can be refurbished or repowered, the need to decommission a vast number of those installed in the 1990s and early 2000s will put significant pressure on the sector. “The government’s focus is very much on installing new capacity and there is not enough consideration going into removing older installations,” they said. “The cost and time involved presents a real risk and could take focus away from the installing new offshore wind farms to meet the government’s targets.”

NCE contacted a number of energy firms and operators of offshore wind farms but at the time of going to press, none had commented on the claims.

Skill issues were also highlighted by the research. “As the turbines exceed their safety remit, the sector is also set to lose the unique skillset of engineers that originally installed and maintained these early models, as they are now approaching professional retirement,” said the team. “To combat this loss of skills, researchers advise the imperative creation of a database of era-specific skills and operation-techniques to offset such a loss.”

University of Kent School of Engineering and Digital Arts reader in mechanical engineering Mahmoud Shafiee, who led the research with Cranfield University Department of Energy and Power research student Tosin Adedipe, said: “Without a dedicated effort from the UK government and renewable energy sector into planning the safe and efficient decommissioning these offshore wind turbines, there is a risk enormous and potentially unsalvageable cost to the renewable energy sector. The cost of maintaining outdated turbines is multiple times that of new installations, so for the benefit of our future hopes of renewable energy, we call on the government and sector leaders to act now.”

The paper based on the research sets out proposals for an economic assessment framework for decommissioning offshore wind turbines using a cost breakdown structure and highlights the need to focus on recycling as part of the decommissioning process.

Findings of the report came out as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), The Crown Estate and Crown Estate Scotland appointed Arup to carry out research into future wind farm development. The Future Deployment scenarios of Fixed Bottom and Floating Offshore Wind in the UK project is part of the Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme led by The Crown Estate, together with its Programme partners, BEIS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

According to Arup, the research will provide a greater understanding of the balance between technical, economic, environmental and system constraints, and their interactions with the costs to deliver the UK’s Net Zero ambition.

Under the deal, Arup will work with UK technology innovation and research centre, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, and marine consultancy, ABPmer, to develop these scenarios and build a digital and data mapping solution to visualise costs and spatial constraints in an interactive and geospatial format.

Arup Scotland energy leader Clare Lavelle said: “This is a pivotal time for the energy industry and its customers, with offshore wind identified as the backbone to the UK’s plan to produce renewable energy at scale. This research is a vital step towards mapping out the future of offshore wind in the UK and its role in helping the country towards its 2050 Net Zero commitment.”