Building the 'Saudi Arabia' of wind power

Jake Billingham argues despite the UK's impressive wind power potential, the government faces an uphill battle to deliver the green energy kingdom it has promised.

We have all become familiar with this soundbite: a growing favourite in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repertoire. It featured in his speeches at last year’s UN Climate Change RoundTable, the Conservative Party Conference, and the Climate Ambition Summit.

However good it sounds, the phrase is a long way from the action that the climate crisis demands, leaving a lot of unanswered questions.

What does it actually mean?

Let’s start in terms of power. Saudi Arabia produces 10 million barrels of oil per day [1], equivalent to a whopping 16.4 billion kWh [2], not to mention over 4 million tonnes of CO2 [3]. That’s enough to allow 8.9 billion people (more than the world’s population) to simultaneously watch Netflix [4].

This represents about 12% of global oil production [5], and is actually slightly less than the oil produced by the USA. It seems strange that the Prime Minister would aspire to make the UK the world’s second best in wind energy.

Perhaps he was actually alluding to Saudi Arabia’s exports: around three quarters of the oil leaves the country, which is more than any other nation [1].

At least one of these metrics would surely have to be matched to fulfil the commitment.

But is that actually possible?

Saudi Arabia has huge, accessible, and high quality oil reserves. Without similar natural resources Britain wouldn’t stand a chance.

Luckily the UK has some of the world’s windiest seas, as shown in in the map below. A 2016 study estimated there is potentially 675GW of economically viable wind resource in British waters [6]. That’s another 8.8 billion Netflix viewers, on par with Saudi Arabia’s oil output!

map of European mean wind power density
Map of European mean wind power density [8]

It makes sense then, that the UK leads the world in offshore wind, contributing a third of global generation. This is achieved by an installed capacity of just 10GW, due to the juvenile state of the industry [7].

Moreover, ten-fold growth in the wind sector is predicted by 2030, mostly in Asia. This means that the 30GW increase set out in the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan would leave us with a decreased share of around 17%, only second to that of China [7] - but checking the Saudi Arabia comparison box.

Like oil, wind energy can be exported; the UK is currently connected to its neighbours by five undersea cables.

Since 2010 we have been a net importer. But considering that British electricity demand in the last 12 months peaked at around 57GW [9], the UK could match the export ratio of Saudi Arabia by utilising 34% of our wind resource (about 230GW). This doesn’t, however, account for the predicted consumption rise as the country electrifies.

Reaching that 230GW figure would require an area roughly 2.5 times the size of Wales to be covered by wind farms [6], which is no small feat. If anything like that level is to ever be approached, then the wind energy industry must be firing on all cylinders.

What is stopping us?

Historically, offshore wind has been inhibited by large initial costs and intensive maintenance, leading to high energy prices. But sweeping technological advancements and government commitments has meant that offshore wind contracts are now being awarded at prices lower than existing gas plants [10].

With economics on the side of wind power, only a few obstructive factors still remain:

  • Manufacturers are hindered by a lack of deep water ports, antiquated grid connection requirements, and the inefficient process of obtaining sea bed rights.

  • Electricity provided by wind is transient, requiring additional mechanisms to ensure that demand can be consistently met.

  • Exports are limited by undersea cable capacity, which currently totals just 5GW. However, a further 26GW is under construction or consideration [11].

So, what comes next?

There is surely no better opportunity than the COVID-19 recovery period to invigorate this emerging behemoth of an industry. The creation of new jobs and expertise has never been more pressing than now, with the uncertainty - brought on by EU Exit - surrounding the involvement of overseas developers.

The Ten Point Plan has already taken steps to counteract some of these problems, for example investing £160 million in modern ports. Whilst the recent Energy White Paper outlined plans for new technologies to combat the transience of wind energy including battery, cryogenic, and pumped hydro storage.

With the advent of floating turbines promising even more generation, it seems that the potential exists for Britain to become the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of wind. It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient ambition to realise this green energy kingdom.