Five innovations that could cut the cost of offshore wind

  • 13 Jan 2015, 11:20
  • Simon Evans

Offshore | Shutterstock

Offshore windfarms have a growing role in cutting UK carbon emissions, but they're expensive. We've selected five innovations that could help cut costs, from a new Royal Society journal special issue exploring the cutting edge of wind power.

Cost-cutting innovations are important because a growing share of the UK's electricity is generated by offshore windfarms. The UK has 4,042 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, more than any other country in the world.

These windfarms supplied 3.6 per cent of the UK's electricity in the 12 months to October 2014, a tripling in three years. The amount of electricity we get from offshore wind is expected to at least double by 2020.

Offshore windfarms are attractive to politicians because they're typically built out of sight, plus the wind blows harder and more consistently out at sea. The snag is that they're expensive, nearly twice as costly as onshore windfarms per unit of electricity generated and 50 per cent more costly than nuclear power, according to a recent EU study.

The expense is largely down to the difficulty of installing and maintaining large wind turbines able to withstand the elements.

This week the Royal Society has published a special journal issue devoted to offshore innovation. It has 16 papers covering everything from designing better turbines using computers and miniature models to cutting the cost of installation and maintenance through remote sensing. Here are five ideas from the special issue that caught our eye.

Screw-in turbine foundations

Ever-larger offshore wind turbine designs pose a big engineering challenge. They typically have to be secured in deeper waters, against larger waves and able to withstand heavier loads from their bigger sails. This strains the limits of standard 'single pile' foundations.

Developers are starting to use a range of new foundation designs, from tripods to floating platforms. But one of the Royal Society papers suggests a novel option: helical piles. Instead of driving a single hollow steel tube foundation into the ground with a pile driver, helical piles are essentially giant screws that would be screwed into the sea floor.

There are already used on land for some applications and offer several advantages, the paper argues. They can also be 'unscrewed' when the turbine reaches the end of its life, easing decommissioning.

The paper says they're stronger and suitable for a wider range of soils. Screw-in piles would also bypass concerns over the noise impacts on whales and dolphins caused by pile-driving traditional foundations.

The only problem? Screwing the piles in without spinning the installation boat round and round. One answer may be to screw two helical piles in at one, in opposite directions.

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Long-term economic shocks imply taking strong, early action on climate change, study shows

  • 12 Jan 2015, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

Coastal erosion | Shutterstock

Policymakers need to take significant, early action to tackle climate change if they are to avoid lasting damage to the global economy, a new study suggests.

The paper, published in Nature Climate Change today, shows that poor countries are particularly vulnerable to long-term economic shocks associated with a warming world.The results bolster the sense of increasing urgency surrounding international climate negotiations.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon today called for politicians to "aim high" at this year's Paris negotiations. Writing in the  Guardian, he said that today's generation is the "last that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change".

Long-term economic shocks

The new research by two Stanford University academics models the impacts of rising temperatures on countries' economies. It says previous models underestimate the long-term economic shocks associated with climate change.

Models currently  struggle to quantify all the likely economic impacts of climate change. The Stanford University study tries to improve them by broadening the economic impacts they include.

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The implications of $50-a-barrel oil for the world’s energy mix

  • 09 Jan 2015, 12:40
  • Mat Hope

Yellow oil barrels | Shutterstock

Oil prices keep sliding, sending economic shockwaves around the world. Analysts are scrambling to try and understand what it means for the world's future energy mix and efforts to cut emissions. But the relationship between oil prices and energy investments is complex.

Much depends on how low the price goes as, beyond a certain point, lots of projects are no longer economically viable.

We take a look at what may happen to the oil price, what it means for the industry, and how it could affect the world's efforts to move towards a zero-carbon energy system.

Oil prices

Over the past year, oil prices have gone from a high of about $115 to a current low of about $50 a barrel, far below many analysts' original expectations.

Those same analysts are now busy revising their projections. While most seem to think the oil price has hit or is nearing rock bottom, there's a wide range of projections for where it may rebound to in 2015.

This chart shows just how varied those predictions are. They're not all like for like - some are estimates of a low point, some are average price projections for the next twelve months, or predictions for particular financial quarters - but they do give an idea of the spread of projections:

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Source: Data collated and graphed by Carbon Brief.

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London set to miss mayor's climate change targets as population booms

  • 09 Jan 2015, 11:50
  • Simon Evans

London skyline | Shutterstock

The UK's capital is likely to miss ambitious climate targets set by mayor Boris Johnson, Carbon Brief analysis shows. With London's population expected to reach an all-time high within weeks, already-challenging climate goals are becoming even harder to meet.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the capital were 10 per cent below 1990 levels in 2012, the most recent official London climate inventory data show. But that wasn't on target - emissions were supposed to have fallen 14.5 per cent that year, according to the mayor's climate plan.

This year emissions may be 17 per cent below 1990 levels, Carbon Brief projections suggest, assuming recent trends have continued. This would be more than one million tonnes short of the mayor's interim goal for a 20 per cent reduction by 2015.

Back in 2011, Johnson announced that London would aim to cut its emissions 60 per cent by 2025, on 1990 levels. Carbon Brief projections suggest this target will be missed by a wide margin unless something changes, with London on track for just a 40 per cent cut.

London lags, not leads on climate

The mayor's 2025 climate target and interim goals for 2015 and 2020 were set out in Delivering London's Energy Future, his climate change mitigation and energy strategy. This explained how the targets would be met through action by the mayor's office along with private initiatives and national government policies.

The 60 per cent London target was and remains more ambitious than that set for the UK as a whole, which is aiming for a 50 per cent reduction by 2023-27.

The mayor's strategy said London should take a leadership role in tackling climate change. However, progress so far shows London lagging the UK as a whole. London's had achieved a 10 per cent carbon reduction in 2012, significantly less than the rest of the UK which saw emissions 25 per cent below 1990 levels in the same year.


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Early EU carbon market reform paramount - UK study

  • 07 Jan 2015, 14:00
  • Simon Evans

Trading chart | Shutterstock

Early implementation of planned reforms to fix the EU carbon market is much more important than the precise details of those reforms, according to a report produced for the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Rapid reforms are needed to tackle the "myopia of firms" who risk getting locked in to a high-carbon path, says the report published by DECC yesterday. Early reform is the single biggest factor in correcting the problems faced by the carbon market, it adds.

The EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) is central to EU efforts to tackle climate change. But it has been suffering from chronically low prices that are insufficient to drive needed low-carbon investments, potentially leaving firms facing higher costs later on if they are forced to retire high-carbon technology early.

The European Commission has proposed to bring in ETS reforms from 2021 in an effort to tackle these low prices, which are the result of a massive surplus of credits on the market. The surplus is over two billion carbon credits, according to the commission, and some groups expect it to grow significantly by 2020.

The commission's reforms would introduce a market stability reserve (MSR) to reduce the size of the carbon credit surplus at set trigger points. It hopes this would reduce price volatility and help push market participants onto a more cost-effective decarbonisation pathway, with early investment in low-carbon technology.


But the reserve should be introduced much sooner, in 2017, according to the UK, France and Germany among others, such as the International Energy Agency. They now have support for this position from a study looking at a range of options for the proposed market stability reserve.

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Germany makes slow but steady progress towards ambitious climate goals

  • 07 Jan 2015, 13:10
  • Mat Hope

German wind turbine | Shutterstock

In 2010, Germany set out a range of ambitious policies to cut emissions and decarbonise its energy sector. Four years on,  new figures show the programme, known as the  Energiewende or 'energy transition', is making slow but steady progress.

It has not been easy. Earlier this year, there was  speculation that Germany might abandon its emissions reduction target as it struggled to cut coal use.

It didn't. Instead, the government unveiled a new, refreshed  climate action plan laying out some changes to the programme.

Thinktank  Agora Energiewende* has compiled new figures showing that while Germany's direction of travel is clear, reforms are vital if the country is going to hit its climate goals.

Incremental progress

Perhaps the most striking thing about the figures is how gradual the changes to Germany's energy sector appear on an annual basis. Most power sources only increased or decreased electricity production by a single per cent in the past year.

But there are a few important differences between now and twelve months ago.

This year was the first time renewable sources produced more electricity than lignite power plants, which burn a particularly carbon-intensive type of coal. Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass power plants combined produced over a quarter of Germany's electricity in 2014.

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Source: Agora Energiewende,  State of Affairs 2014

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What falling oil prices may mean for the future of renewable energy investment

  • 06 Jan 2015, 10:00
  • Mat Hope & Rosamund Pearce

Oil rig moonlight | Shutterstock

Oil prices have plummeted in recent months, with the price of oil today hitting its  lowest point for five years. That's led to lots of speculation about the impact of falling oil prices on the world's efforts to cut emissions by decarbonising the energy sector.

There's little consensus. Some analysts argue that the falling oil price could end the world's slow march towards zero carbon energy. Others say renewables are established enough to see out the storm.

There are good reasons for such uncertainty. The renewable energy industry's fate rests on a number of factors that are very hard to predict.

We take you through the key elements of what's likely to continue to be a major story in coming months.


The impact of falling oil prices on renewables varies in different parts of the world.

Renewables generate  about a fifth of the UK's electricity. Only 0.06 per cent comes from oil. It's a similar story in the US, where oil generates about  one per cent of electricity. Where oil and renewable electricity  aren't really competing, the falling oil price is  unlikely to have a major impact, in the short term at least.

But that's not the case everywhere in the world. Oil accounted for about  10 per cent of electricity production in Central and South America in 2012, and about  29 per cent in the Middle East. Here, renewables compete with oil as an electricity source. Renewables have historically been  squeezed out of the generating mix when that's the case.

Will -oil -slump -kill -renewables

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Back to the future: The year in international climate politics

  • 30 Dec 2014, 09:00
  • Christian Hunt

Remember the heady days of 2009, when recycling was hot, political leaders competed to be green, and we were about to agree a global climate deal that would solve the climate problem once and for all? (This is not flippant, I actually remember people saying this kind of thing.)

Well, for better or worse, it's all coming back. Maybe. Politicians have set a self-imposed deadline of the end of 2015 to agree a global climate deal in Paris. That means there's more interest in climate change on the international stage now than there has been since the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, although heaven knows what it will amount to.

So are we doomed to repeat history? Or is there perhaps a new sense of realism in international climate policy? As we approach the end of what has been an action-packed year for climate politics, it's probably too soon to call. But it feels like the inevitable raising of expectations in the run up to next year's Paris meeting is being tempered by the dawning realisation of how bloody hard all of this is going to be.

Here's a quick review of the main events of the year in international climate politics.

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Government holds first capacity market auction

  • 16 Dec 2014, 09:45
  • Mat Hope

High Marnham | Shutterstock

Companies will today bid for government subsidies to ensure power plants are available at the flick of a switch, as part of the new capacity market. The market is designed to ensure the lights always stay on, even when demand is high and the weather means renewables aren't generating electricity.

Under the scheme, power providers are paid to be available when the National Grid needs them. But it's not yet clear which power stations will be included in the scheme. That's important, as it will determine how much coal, gas, or oil gets burned for power generation, and what the impact on the UK's emissions will be.

The capacity market's first auction begins this morning. We explain how the market works, and how it fits with the government's wider energy and climate change policy goals.

Making a market

Even though  electricity demand is gradually reducing, the UK's peak demand isn't shrinking much, and is set to remain at around 53 gigawatts.

The UK has lots of old coal, gas and nuclear power plants. As they age, they get more prone to breaking, so if the power companies don't want to invest millions in upgrading them they usually shut them down.

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Good COP, bad COP: Winners and losers at the Lima climate conference

  • 15 Dec 2014, 12:24
  • Mat Hope


Representatives of 190 countries agreed the  Lima Call for Climate Action early on Sunday morning, recommitting countries to preventing temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

None hailed the deal as a triumph, and no single actor came away feeling totally satisfied with what went on over the last two weeks, or what looks set to come over the next year. But there were small victories smattered throughout the text.

We review  the deal, and identify Lima's winners and losers.

Climate finance

Good COP for developed countries nervous about their short-term economic recovery.

Countries including the EU, US, and even Australia collectively  pledged a little over $10 billion to the UN's newest climate fund in run-up to the Lima negotiations. During the talks, it became clear that this is the limit of what they're willing to give, for now, as their economies struggle to recover from the recession.

Economists suggest that spending money to help developing countries pursue lower carbon development paths and become more resilient to climate change is a wise investment. They say that sacrificing  a fraction of one per cent of global GDP now could save the global economy trillions in the decades to come.

Bad COP for the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) bloc demanding financing assurances.

The LMDC group is made up of 26 developing nations. They made it clear  going into the negotiations that they wanted countries to ramp up their contributions to the UN's  multiple climate funds, and give greater assurances that such financing would be delivered.

Countries like Bangladesh argued that funds to help them adapt to climate change were  their "right" rather than a demand. But despite the strong language, the world's largest emitters wouldn't promise anything new.

Developing countries made it clear they wouldn't agree to more transparent financing processes, showing how the funds were spent, until new money was on the table. In the end, the Lima agreement settled for the worst of both worlds: less transparency and less funding.

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Executives of the UN's Green Climate Fund meet secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the Lima conference. Credit:  UN Photo


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