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DNV GL’s Colin Morgan on politics: Energy is political

Colin Morgan-smallOffshore wind energy has a great story to tell. We need to make sure it’s told right.

In physics energy is simple. It is the fundamental capacity of a system to do work and, as far as we can know, follows well-defined natural laws. But things get complicated very quickly once human beings are added to the picture. Tapping the myriad energy resources of our planet, converting them into usable forms and transporting them to places where we want them have posed some of the defining engineering challenges of the last 200 years.

Engineering is just one part of an energy system that is becoming ever more complex. Access to some form of energy is a prerequisite for almost all economic activity and has a direct effect on the quality of people’s lives. “Keeping the lights on”—ensuring reliable, affordable supplies of energy—is a policy puzzle that has confounded governments around the world.

Concern about carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels along with the perennial desire for more ‘energy independence’ has led policy makers to support new ways of doing things –including generating clean, domestic electricity from offshore wind farms. Ten years since the installation of the first commercial scale offshore wind farm, an industry in their supply, installation and operation has emerged.

Dozens of companies specialising in the sector are now hard at work figuring out new ways of doing things, from landing technicians on turbines using helicopters to new subsea soil sampling techniques. With 2000 turbines already generating electricity, offshore wind is making a meaningful contribution to Europe’s energy mix. But it wouldn’t have been this way without consistent and visible support from governments.

The transition from great idea to a viable business, the so called ‘valley of death’, demands investment by companies to gain the benefits of economies of scale. Encouraging private firms to invest millions or billions in products or services for a brand new industry without the confidence that the government is in it for the long-run is a tough sell.

The faltering offshore wind programmes in the Netherlands and Sweden provide an example of what can happen when governments blink. A backdrop of positive political noises is more important than elegant regulatory solutions, which can only smooth the path for offshore wind or creative engineering which can convert ideas into hardware. A consistent narrative from government about the role of offshore wind can instill confidence that backing might outlive the short term-ism which sometimes seems hardwired into electoral cycles.

The case for offshore wind is incontrovertible. Large scale, carbon-free electricity generation that bolsters energy security is a self-evidently attractive proposition. Costs are coming down as we learn more about the engineering and a clearer picture of the scale of the industrial opportunity is developing.

But the politics of energy are notoriously rowdy with a huge number of interests clamouring to be heard above the cacophony. In this atmosphere, simply being a ‘technology whose time has come’ is not enough to ensure political buy-in.

Clearly, consistently and loudly articulating the benefits of making the most of our fantastic natural wind resources is vital to sustaining the political support needed for offshore wind to fulfil its potential. Offshore wind has a great story to tell and it is incumbent on those who want to see it succeed to tell it. If we don’t, someone else will.

This article first appeared in Offshore Wind: 10 years, 10 lessons. The complete document can be downloaded from here.


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