The UK’s offshore wind farm debacle and its consequences for Net-Zero
The UK’s latest offshore wind farm auction fell flat. No bids were received, which surprised no one. Warning signs that the auction would fail had been known for some weeks. For this year at least, no new offshore wind farm projects will be announced. With the planned Norfolk Boreas wind farm halted, the UK’s offshore wind power has ground to a halt.
This isn’t so much evidence that wind power is dead in the water, more that the UK Government failed to listen to industry. While construction costs are significantly lower than when the first offshore wind farms were auctioned a decade ago, the past two years has seen costs increase by 40%. A war in Ukraine, global pandemic disrupting supply chains, general inflation and rising debt costs contributed to this rise, all occurring since the last auction in 2019.
Given the low price the government expected to pay for energy, it was already touch-and-go whether projects would be profitable. Industry suggested doubling the maximum price, to which the government said no, so they got nothing. And it’s worth remembering that even if the industry’s higher price had been accepted without question, energy bills in the UK would still be lower than today.
Has Net Zero failed?
Beyond all the heckling and inevitable blaming already in the media, there are some serious concerns this debacle has raised.
First, the UK will likely miss its target of having a “Net Zero” energy grid by 2035. In turn, other parts of the economy expecting the grid to deliver will struggle. If 2035 fails, expect the broader plan of a 2050 net-zero economy in the UK to fail.
Second, this is part of the UK’s wider issue with Net Zero. The country was seen by many as a leader in the campaign, making bold strides to move to renewable energy and reduce CO2 emissions. These have started to wane, with comprehensive environmental protections in tatters and arguments about reducing emissions in city streets.
Third, the longer these issues still need to be addressed, the harder it will be to achieve and the more it will cost. The UK will likely lean harder on carbon capture technologies and carbon offset approaches. The former is largely unproven at scale, while the latter is facing significant challenges with allegations of fraud and concerns about their effectiveness.
Finally, emerging conditions could upend the Net Zero objective entirely. It’s become the post-Brexit bogeyman, with countless conspiracy theories and endless misinformation surfacing. That the UK has a broadcaster openly supporting and spreading climate denial conspiracies is of great concern. I would not be surprised to see a full-blown “anti Net Zero” movement emerge that stretches beyond fringe politicians and presenters.
A way forward? Build them anyway.
There is an answer to the auction’s failure which the current UK Government is unlikely to pursue:
build the wind farms as a national infrastructure project.
Everything is in place to do it, except for the political will. As a piece of infrastructure, it would be on the books as a national asset, with The Treasury benefiting from its revenues. Later, should a government wish, it could even privatize the wind farms.
It’s improbable that this will happen as the political ideology isn’t in place. So, for now, the world will have to watch on as a former leader in the push to decarbonize the global economy has a few years off, then plays catch-up.