As anyone who’s taken a trip to a British seaside resort will tell you, the UK can be a windy place. In fact, did you know that it’s the windiest country in Europe? That might not be completely ideal for keeping your beach umbrella up, but it is a good thing for generating energy.
Wind energy is the world’s fastest growing renewable energy type. In the UK, 4% of the UK’s total energy output already comes from wind – and we’ve seen how that will only increase over the next decade and beyond.
This makes the development of wind farms hugely important. There are currently over 900 wind projects across the UK, and we at E.ON are one of the UK’s leading renewable generators, with 23 wind farms – both on and offshore – in operation.
That includes the London Array, the largest offshore wind farm in the world, and the recently completed Humber Gateway Offshore Wind Farm. The Humber Gateway Farm, located eight kilometres off the coast of Holderness, is now fully operational, with 73 turbines supplying up to 170,000 households with climate-friendly power.
But wind farms don’t just pop up overnight. These mammoth projects take years of planning. There are tons of challenges to overcome and mind-boggling logistics to tackle. So how do you do it? We turned to Matthew Swanwick, the project manager on the Humber Gateway, to find out…
Find the right site
Just like when buying a house, when building a wind farm it’s all about Location, Location, Location. You need a big area – the Humber Gateway site is approximately 24.8 square kilometres, for example – and of course, you need to check whether the area you’ll build in can generate enough wind. That may sound obvious, but you don’t want to find out that your farm is sheltered for some reason only when it’s too late.
Next, you’ll need to check that the terrain you’re building on is capable of withstanding the construction process too – particularly for offshore farms where you’re developing on the seabed. “The vessels we use have large legs, so you need to check you’re able to stand them safely for the duration of the construction process and not damage the seabed either,” Matthew tells us.
You also have to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment. “That’s a document that runs into hundreds of pages,” Matthew says. “You consult with a number of organisations, like Natural England, and you look at everything that affects the surrounding environment. For offshore farms that can cover anything from fishing habits to bird life, coastal erosion to micro-organisms on the seabed and analysis of marine traffic – you conduct all these studies and put a case together on how the wind farm will fare.”
But actually, when it comes to location, it’s not just about the environmental impact or proximity to the coast (for offshore farms) that have a big influence. As Matthew explains: “The key thing in terms of location is that it must be in a good position to connect to the national grid. You need to identify a part of the distribution network that has the capacity to accommodate the power that you’re going to be putting in to the system. So your location might seem to be perfect to generate wind energy, but if you can’t find that connection then your project is dead."
For Matthew’s Humber Gateway project, the farm is 10 kilometres from the coast, and then it’s 30 kilometres to the outskirts of Hull where it connects to the grid. That’s ok – but if you start needing to travel 60 or 70 kilometres then it can be implausible. You have to get the distances right – and you need the buy-in of every stakeholder you meet along the way. “We had to reach agreements with all landowners along the connection route,” Matthew says. “That’s a big project in its own right!”
Plan the logistics
So before you even start building the turbines, you have to go through a rather extensive process. Indeed, Matthew says that the for the Humber Gateway project, the earliest milestone was back in 2003, when the lease was granted by the Crown Estate. By the time the various surveys and planning orders were completed it wasn’t until 2011 that all planning consent was received. And construction only truly started in 2012.
“The first year or so after approval is mainly contractual work, and you have to start thinking about ordering some of the larger items – some take months from order to delivery,” Matthew explains.
“There’s a lot of engineering going into the project itself. For instance when you’re building an offshore farm you have to clear boulders off the seabed. In fact, when building Humber on the seabed alone there were 8,000 items that we had to consider. 400 of those had to then be inspected properly by divers on the seabed, and 15 had to be detonated. One was a World War Two mine!”
Everything has to be assessed on a health and safety level too. And you’ll probably have to work around some conditions imposed on you from when planning permission was granted. “You might have some constraints put upon you for the building process,” Matthew says. “Perhaps birds nesting in certain locations will dictate where or when you can lay a cable. Or noise constraints may mean you can only install certain items at certain times. Everything needs to be planned and considered meticulously.”
Get everything in place
When it comes to the actual construction process, time is extremely precious. Building offshore you can’t, for instance, have a ship get to the port for refuelling and find that a fuel tanker is still a few hours away. Everything needs to be in sync. “Even just a few hours of delays can be a real costly issue,” Matthew explains. “One day lost doesn’t always equal one day added on at the end of the project. Due to so many variances it can sometimes equate to adding months on to the end.”
And of course, whether you’re dealing with exposed conditions on shore or with an unpredictable sea off shore, you’re constantly battling the elements. “The sea is different every single day,” Matthew says when recalling the Humber project. “It’s a complex piece of land to be working on. You’re dealing with nature and all it’s got to throw at you. That brings risks and uncertainties. It’s all dictated by tides. You can miss big opportunities.”
As the projects get bigger, the logistical issues intensify too. Matthew and his team had to tackle numerous challenges – some never seen before – to ensure that the project was completed to the best possible standard. In fact they managed to do so not just on time, but two months early.
And so, with the turbines spinning and cables all in place, the Humber Gateway is now able to provide clean, renewable electricity to thousands of homes across East Yorkshire. As with building any wind farm it takes the right conditions, the right area and a lot of time and foresight, but with a good team on board and a little bit of luck sprinkled in, things can all fall into place. But Matthew’s overriding piece of advice? Well that’s clear. “Plan, plan and plan some more.”