Stephen Moorhouse finds out more about offshore wind turbines around the UK
Stephen Moorhouse meets Ben Barton, offshore wind farm manager for the Crown Estate. Listen in to discover how offshore wind farms could help the UK generate more energy from renewable sources.
Hello. I am Stephen Moorhouse. Today, I am meeting with Ben Barton, who is the offshore wind farm manager for the Crown Estate.
In his role, Ben is responsible for managing offshore renewable energy projects. This involves the management of leases, negotiation of site agreements, and planning for future site allocations for both wind farms and wave and tidal energy projects.
Ben is a regular participant in the Marine Environment Education Programme at the National Maritime Museum. I am at his office to catch up with him to find out what really gets him spinning about wind turbines and the like.
Hello Ben. First of all, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what you actually do?
Sure. Yes. I’m Ben Barton. I’m the offshore wind farm manager for the Crown Estate. If you don’t know, the Crown Estate owns lots of property around the UK, both onshore urban, city center property, rural property, but we also own the bed of the sea out to 12 nautical miles around the whole of the UK coast.
My job is really to do with allocating sites for the development of wind farms in the sea. Basically we issue leases or licenses to wind farm companies to go ahead and then build their projects offshore.
What does a typical day’s work for you actually involve?
Well, I’m normally based in the office. I spend quite a lot of time on the phone talking to developers. We have people calling us all the time wanting to do various things.
So, we often talk to developers. We meet with them and see what their plans are going to be for the future. We also spend a lot of time speaking with government departments and stakeholders – people like fishermen.
In fact, I’m off to a fisherman’s meeting later today just to discuss how the next round of wind farms might affect fishermen and how we can work with the fishermen to make sure there aren’t any problems in the future.
So, that is most of what I do actually. I’m in here in the office most of the time, doing that.
Do you get to go out to offshore wind farms and part of your job? What is that like, if you do get that chance?
Yes. We do get to go from time to time. We don’t actually own the wind farms, so we don’t have the chance to go there all the time. But from time to time we get invited out to look at projects which are being built or are complete.
So, it’s always a nice day out to go and see the turbines. It’s actually really impressive that when you get to them, they are huge. They are much, much bigger than you would expect.
If you go up to one in a boat and look up, it is absolutely enormous. The most impressive thing is that they are usually really quiet. You can be right underneath, you can have a normal conversation, and you wouldn’t really know the thing is there apart from this big tower next to you.
So, do you think that this old adage that wind turbines make lots and lots of noise, it is obviously not correct?
Obviously, if you are a long way offshore, any noise that is created will be disguised by the noise of the sea. I think it is true that modern wind turbines are a lot quieter than older ones.
You tend to hear some noise from the blades swishing through the air, and you can sometimes hear some noise from the generator. But, it is pretty quiet. As long as you are a couple of hundred metres away you can’t generally hear them at all.
Are offshore wind turbines bigger than land based wind turbines?
They can be and they usually are. If you are on land there are often various constraints. That is why you can’t build really, really big turbines. Often if you have people living nearby, you have houses which have to be a certain distance from the turbines. Or if you have things like air traffic, it stops you from building larger turbines.
But, once you get offshore, there is a lot more space. So, there is the opportunity to build much, much bigger machines offshore. The other issue really is the visual impacts onshore. Turbines can be a little bit controversial. People don’t always like to see big wind turbines near to where they live.
But, if you go a long way offshore you can build really big turbines and people really then can’t see them from the shoreline.
So, that is roughly what your job involves, but why do you personally think that wind turbines are important? Why have you got into this type of role?
I think, there are two main things. The first one, obviously, is that wind turbines produce green energy. They don’t actually produce any carbon dioxide whilst they are generating power.
So, for every unit of power you produce from a turbine, you are saving a unit of power which could be produced by burning coal or gas. That is one important thing.
The other really important thing is security of energy supply. It is really important that the UK has its own generation capacity – it is able to generate its own power without relying on suppliers of gas that might be unstable from other countries.
The other thing, of course, is that gas and coal are becoming more expensive. Wind turbines, once they are built, there is no fuel cost. They are really free. The fuel is free and they will keep running provided that the wind is blowing.
What is the potential for the offshore wind power industry around the UK? Would it be possible, do you think, to describe a future scenario for us? How do you think the industry is going to go?
Sure. At the moment, we’ve got seven offshore wind farms around the UK generating power. There are another four under construction at the moment.
So, by this time next year, we will have about a gigawatt of power installed. Just for comparison, that is about the size of a small, conventional gas fired power station. So that’s one gigawatt.
We are looking to actually get 33 gigawatts of offshore wind turbines installed by 2020, which is obviously a huge increase. If we get that that will be around 25% of the UK’s electricity coming from offshore wind.
Obviously we have got lots of space offshore; lots of room to put turbines, though there are constraints of other activities offshore. The other thing is obviously the wind doesn’t blow all the time. So, we do still need to retain some conventional power to back things up when the wind is not blowing.
So, all in all, say with that future scenario, do you think that is going to mean cheaper energy or just greener energy?
I would like to think it will be both. Obviously the energy will be greener because there will be no CO2 emissions from generating it. In terms of cheaper, wind farms are expensive to build, particularly offshore.
But obviously, once they are up and running, the power can be cheaper because there is no fuel involved. You don’t have to pay for any fuel. So, in the long term, once the products have been operating for quite some time, I think the power should be cheaper.
The other aspect of that is the construction costs have gone up a lot recently, but they are starting to level off now. So, it’s hopeful that in the future it could be a little bit cheaper to build the things in the first place.
So, what are the particular things that you look out for when deciding where to actually site new offshore wind farms?
First of all, with onshore, most of the controversy has been around the visual impact. As I mentioned earlier, with offshore that is not such a problem, though it has been a problem in some of the earlier initial sites.
What we tend to do is look at all possible constraints on a site before we would think about allocating it for a wind farm. We have got a geographic information system, which maps most things which are happening offshore; so not only human activities, but also environmental aspects as well.
We are doing a lot of work at the moment in choosing the best sites for the location of these projects where they won’t cause damage to any other activities or damage to the environment.
That is the key I think; choosing the best sites from the start rather than dealing with problems later on.
Yes, definitely. Now, I have got one final question for you. Your job obviously is all about the environment. But, what would you suggest our listeners could do if they too wanted to do something to help the marine environment? What do you think is the best thing?
I think one very easy thing you could do is to join in on one of the beach litter picks, which happen all the time around the country. The Marine Conservation Society runs these from time to time and local authorities often do them as well.
It is just a way to get involved and do something pretty simple, but actually it does make a big difference in clearing litter from the beaches.
Yes. Nice. I try and actually promote that a lot when I am working with the kids as well at the Maritime Museum. Ben, thank you very much for talking to me.
Cheers. Thank you very much Stephen.