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ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

How the UK can rise to the top of the floating wind sector


6 min read

Ocean monitoring equipment floating just under sea surface, with blue skies above Photo: Blue Ocean Monitoring
The Global Underwater Hub believes the UK is well placed to become a world leader in the floating wind industry

Photo: Blue Ocean Monitoring

The UK has a unique opportunity to take advantage of the burgeoning floating wind industry, transferring its considerable subsea expertise from offshore oil and gas projects. So argues Neil Gordon, Chief Executive of the Global Underwater Hub (GUH).

In the same month the GUH, the trade and development body for the UK’s underwater industry, was launched in February 2022, a white paper was also published. This revealed that the UK’s underwater industry, valued at around £8bn, had the potential to grow to £45bn by 2035, creating an estimated 180,000 new jobs and bringing in around £20bn in exports for the UK.


This level of growth might seem overly ambitious but, based on the trajectory of the Blue Economy (which focuses on the fisheries sector and marine and coastal resources) and with the UK maintaining its current share of a third of the global market, these figures appear justified. Since then, several factors and market forces have combined to paint an even brighter future for the UK’s underwater industry – if we can rise to the many challenges facing us and truly capitalise on the unprecedented scale of opportunity.


We’ve seen a shift in sentiment towards oil and gas exploration and production as a direct result of the geopolitical situation in Ukraine. This has caused chaos in the global energy market, with governments around the world adjusting their focus towards energy security. Consequently, oil, gas and even coal have moved up the agenda, but this must not come at the expense of the energy transition. Indeed, this journey away from reliance on fossil fuels towards renewables must continue to accelerate.


Plans for the UK
In the UK, two major seabed leasing and licensing rounds are examples of that transition in action. The scale of what is planned in UK waters, through Scotwind, signals one of the biggest industrial opportunities for the country in decades. Crown Estate Scotland outlined almost £25bn of planned investment into the Scottish economy across Scotwind projects. The total financial investment in the supply chain across these developments is £66bn. Of the 17 projects, 11 will be using floating wind turbines.


All of this is before we factor in Innovation and Targeted Oil & Gas (INTOG), another seabed leasing round which will attract bidders to apply for the rights to build offshore wind farms and deliver innovation for the purpose of decarbonising oil and gas production in the North Sea by providing clean, green energy to electrify platforms.


It is anticipated that, due to the urgency in meeting North Sea Transition Deal targets, INTOG projects will get underway first and pave the way for Scotwind developments.


However, with these multi-billion pound opportunities coming down the line, both in emerging sectors where subsea skills and technology are eminently transferable, such as floating offshore wind; wave and tidal energy; carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen; and in traditional oil and gas, it is clear that the UK’s underwater industry, which has also been exploring the potential in aquaculture, oceanology and defence, is facing an unprecedented scale and choice of opportunities.


Navigating the storms ahead
But with this plethora of opportunities comes very real challenges. The subsea supply chain is finding it increasingly difficult to make decisions on which sectors or markets to pursue and, subsequently, when and where to invest. Greater visibility of the opportunities and clarity around accessing funding and specialist support are crucial to growth.


The GUH is helping the industry to tackle this tsunami of challenges and opportunities with the market insight and intelligence needed to make informed decisions that will allow it to fully capitalise on them. Commercially focused market intelligence gathered by the GUH gives companies clear routes to market that inform strategic decision-making within the supply chain.


Floating offshore wind, for example, presents one of the greatest opportunities for the subsea sector in the North Sea since the early 1980s. The underwater elements of manufacturing, assembling, installing and then operating and maintaining floating offshore wind projects are wholly transferable from offshore oil and gas, where subsea expertise was, largely, honed and refined.


From floating foundations to mooring and anchoring systems, as well as dynamic power cables, the subsea industry will be integral to delivering floating wind. And it’s not just these obvious, large-scale fabrication and manufacturing elements, it’s also all the skills and technologies, components and sub-components which will be required further down the line.


The UK’s unique position
Much has already been reported about the loss of business for the UK in fixed offshore wind, when most of the fabrication ended up overseas and many of the developers and turbine manufacturers were not UK-based. A UK government report, four years ago, described the lack of UK firms in the offshore wind supply chain as a ‘missed opportunity’ and stated that a more strategic approach was needed by government and industry in the future.


Thanks to the UK’s unrivalled underwater ingenuity and engineering, floating offshore wind is where we can really make our mark – if we grasp the opportunity and invest in the advancement of our already world-leading subsea experience, knowledge, expertise and technology.  


The British Energy Security Strategy’s ambition to deliver up to 50 GW of generating capacity from offshore wind by 2030 includes 5 GW of floating wind, which is anticipated to rapidly increase beyond then. By becoming a first mover in floating offshore wind at scale, the UK will be well-placed to capitalise on the many floating wind projects that will swiftly develop around the globe.


Determined the country would not lose out this time, the UK government issued a Request for Information (RFI) to those who could support offshore floating wind. The responses are informing government of both the opportunities available and the capabilities and capacity in the supply chain to allow it to gauge where investment can have the biggest impact.


Furthermore, through the Floating Offshore Wind Manufacturing Investment Scheme (FLOWMIS) up to £160mn will be made available to scale-up the deployment of floating offshore wind and to invest in key areas where we have competitive advantage. With the UK’s world-leading status and market share, the subsea sector clearly has an edge here and the GUH is building a robust case for government to support the sector as an enabler with the greatest potential to deliver UK capability in floating wind.


But, more importantly, we are working closely with government agencies to identify the key areas of expertise and technology in which to invest. It’s crucial that the UK and Scottish governments know how to support the industrial investment required to ensure the UK supply chain meets the ambition and pledges made by the successful bidders in Scotwind and INTOG.


A clear supply chain strategy is absolutely critical to ensure that the underwater industry has visibility of these projects so they are equipped to capitalise on them and that government knows where and when to invest in order to build out capability and capacity, and accelerate the massive scale-up that will be required to take full advantage of the biggest industrial opportunity in the North Sea in decades.


The underlying point is the magnitude of what is needed in relation to subsea engineering and technology to ensure the UK capitalises on not only the opportunities presented by the energy transition, but also those in the wider Blue Economy. The sheer scale of what’s required in terms of the length and amount of fixed and dynamic cables, including the raw materials copper and aluminium, mooring chain, buoyancy and protection systems, anchor handling vessels as well as the skills and technology to assemble, install and commission them, is unprecedented.  


The role of the GUH
The GUH is scrutinising the underwater aspect of these major opportunities to provide granularity around the scale and help develop strategies with government and all industry stakeholders that will build out a robust, indigenous industry with the capability and capacity needed to maximise them.


In conclusion, the GUH is playing a pivotal role in championing the underwater industry, ensuring the supply chain has the market intelligence and insight it needs to deliver transformational change by capitalising on the opportunities for exponential growth.


Unlocking the depth of opportunity under the oceans is key to meeting the long-term shift towards a low carbon society and sustainable use of the oceans’ resources and, in turn, to creating significant additional revenues, jobs, technology and exports for the UK.