Governments can go further and act faster to reach ambitious wind expansion targets, insists Ben Backwell, CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), in conversation with Energy Monitor. However, to overcome challenges facing the sector and the world more generally – not least the short window in which to bring extra wind power online and cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement – greater collaboration will be needed, he believes.

“Nobody should be an island,” says Backwell.

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Ben Backwell, Global Wind Energy Council CEO. (Photo courtesy of GWEC)

The world must install new wind power capacity three times faster over the next decade to achieve global climate targets, according to a recent report from the GWEC. Is this really possible?

The challenges are enormous.

The global technical potential from wind is enough to supply the world with power several times over, but you have to build it and finance it. The main constraint is time. We are confident we can scale up the industry to the right degree, but the question is whether we can do it by 2050 or 2030. The wind sector is working with substantial lead times.

A lot of what needs to happen must do so by 2030. If you leave it to 2040, then you physically will not build the infrastructure in time, even if the money is there. It must start happening now.

In the UK, Dogger Bank Wind Farm has taken ten to 15 years to complete. The UK has a good model in place for scaling up wind energy, but there is no way we can get where we need to be with those lead times.

Are there any regions that are well on track to meet their targets?

China is building at a phenomenal rate. Last year was the biggest year ever for wind globally, with an additional 93GW installed. Almost two-thirds of that was in China. In the US, when the economics are right, they are also able to build quickly. However, in some European countries such as Germany and France, it can be incredibly slow.

India also has ambitious targets to add nearly 20.2GW of new wind power capacity between 2021 and 2025, but the whole process is painfully slow.

What is causing delays to the roll-out of wind power?

One of the principal issues is planning and permitting. Our systems are business-as-usual systems. They are inefficient and there is too much administrative process. A scoping document for an offshore wind farm is phenomenal; it is like the phone directory. We need to simplify procedures.

Permitting regimes are also not fit for purpose. In Europe, it is possible for two people in a community to challenge the legality of a wind farm, and that can stop the whole project for two years, even though 99% of the community supports it.

A scoping document for an offshore wind farm is phenomenal; it is like the phone directory.

Having a single agency that is responsible for the whole process helps; then only one entity can be taken to court, which would minimise legal friction. Having governments identify the areas where wind farm development is favourable or encouraged would also improve the efficiency of planning.

We know these changes are possible. We have seen governments behave in an entirely different way in response to Covid-19 and we need the same urgency.

Offshore wind additions are expected to reach a record 7.3GW in 2021. How can the market scale up without compromising biodiversity or impacting on other maritime activities?

The issue of marine and maritime spatial planning is crucial to minimise disruption, and it can be done. In the North Sea, the marine spatial planning regime has proved successful. The North Sea is one of the busiest shipping areas in the world, and yet we are able to build large wind farms there without issue. It is about cooperation and setting clear rules.

A lot of the growth in offshore wind will come from Asia, but there are no cooperation mechanisms in Asia. The South China Sea is a tense place, and so establishing regional cooperation mechanisms like we did around the North Sea is incredibly important.

We are trying to encourage this through a framework with the International Renewable Energy Agency that unifies countries engaging with offshore wind. If every country does its own thing, it is going to be inefficient and expensive.

Biodiversity issues can also cause a lot of friction down the line. [Yet] it seems the impacts from offshore wind projects have been mitigated well. Studies carried out by companies such as Ørsted suggest offshore wind farms are good for marine biodiversity through the creation of artificial reefs.

What is the best model for managing and financing the infrastructure needed to transport power from offshore wind farms to the mainland?

There are different models for managing and financing transmission. Most European countries use a centralised model involving a national grid operator. The costs are included in their budget, and then they are offset through pricing in the energy markets, like in Germany.

The UK uses a slightly different model, involving an offshore transmission operator (OFTO). The transmission infrastructure is constructed by the offshore developer before being transferred to the OFTO, which then runs the transmission like a private business.

We need a massive expansion of interconnectivity for offshore wind farms. Energy islands [artificial islands that connect and distribute power from offshore wind farms] are starting to pop up, and they serve as hubs to create better connections between energy generated offshore and systems on land.

The Danish government recently announced plans to develop an energy island that will act as a hub to 200 offshore turbines, supplying three million households with energy.

However, the future of the grid will require a lot of forward planning, with greater consideration for improving efficiency and lowering costs. There is also a resource question around copper because offshore wind requires a lot of cabling.

Globally, 35% of all wind capacity forecast to come online during 2020–25 is supported by auction schemes. How effective is this model for promoting a domestic wind industry?

The UK contracts for difference auction regime has probably been one of the most successful in driving down prices and was one of the main catalysts that made the UK the leading offshore wind market it is today. Now, the industry needs to advance further and faster.

The UK has been good at driving local content, even though some of the larger turbine components are made in Europe. We think there will be a strong local element to offshore wind through the production of cables and sub-components alongside overseeing installation, operations, maintenance and monitoring.

We want to see an ecosystem of different manufacturers and specialisations across the world. It is a large-scale undertaking, and often it cannot be achieved using only domestic industry. Perhaps in China since this is an enormous market, but even then it is sub-optimal. Collaboration is important; nobody should be an island.