In the continued effort of the UK to meet its Net Zero targets, the government has published a roadmap to decarbonising North Sea offshore wind Operation and Maintenance (“O&M”) maritime operations (the “Roadmap”). The government’s focus on the O&M phase of an offshore wind farm lifecycle is unsurprising, given this stage in a windfarm’s lifecycle typically lasts 25-30 years with significant reliance on marine gas oil burning vessels throughout. The Roadmap identifies that vessels such as these are responsible for 284 kt CO2e / year globally, making the O&M stage a prime target for future UK Net Zero policy. 

 Many of the themes in the Roadmap overlap with an article we first published in March 2021 “Offshore Wind – Next Wave Supply Chain Challenges and Evolution”. As we identified in our article, early adoption of new vessel and port infrastructure technologies will be vital in minimising carbon emissions during the O&M phase, especially as wind turbines increase in size and are located further out to sea. The Roadmap also extensively analyses the correlation between vessel emissions and windfarm distance from shore (Section 5.3), which links to the government’s general policy of minimising transport time via localised supply chains; a policy we also discuss in our article.

The Roadmap, amongst other things, conducts an in-depth review of the current and emerging clean vessel technologies such as propulsion types, hull types, alternative fuel production and offshore logistical infrastructure. Whilst this makes for exciting reading, the Roadmap recognises that a significant barrier to adoption of these technologies is their cost compared to traditional technology such as fossil fuels. Without initial governmental intervention and financial incentives, these emergent technologies are unlikely to reach a point where economies of scale and developed production infrastructure make them economically feasible in their own right. 

In addition to the above, the Roadmap outlines further barriers that currently exist in the sector in relation to decarbonisation. These include:

  1. disproportionate carbon pricing (i.e. the fact that the current fossil fuel prices fail to take into account the impact of emissions on the environment and human health);
  2. the market uncertainty of the future dominant clean fuel, leading to insufficient market inertia to fully commit and invest in any one given fuel source;
  3. high capital cost of clean maritime technologies;
  4. limited profit margins within the sector leading to reduced discretionary spending on research and development;
  5. the lack of unified safety codes for new technologies, leading to increased investment as companies try to prepare for, quantify and mitigate clean technology risks;
  6. lack of sufficient port infrastructure, severely hindering a vessel operator’s flexibility to position their vessels freely; and
  7. uncertain demand for charters and short-term charters, reducing the incentive for vessel owners to invest in new vessel technologies.

The Roadmap identifies that many of these barriers can be overcome through short-term intervention, until the sector has matured enough to be economically self-sustaining. The Roadmap proposals are separated into four “tracks”: (i) an assessment of technologies; (ii) R&D of viable technologies; (iii) demonstrations at scale of economically viable technologies; and (iv) actions taken by government, regulators or the industry. For those interested in reading the full suite of proposals, Table 8-1 of the Roadmap provides a useful overview.

In short, most proposals require government involvement to some extent and can be broadly categorised into two approaches. Firstly, establishing an economically viable environment for the development and use of clean maritime technologies, either by providing financial support or dis-incentivising the use of traditional technology. Secondly, creating commercial certainty within the sector in respect of the favoured clean technology and also the regulatory and health & safety standards which would underpin that technology.

While the Roadmap is a step in the right direction, it is not legally binding and further steps will be needed to move maritime assets and technology towards Net Zero targets. As the Roadmap highlights, a welcome first step would be to incorporate maritime decarbonisation plans into the UK government’s much-anticipated Hydrogen Strategy, scheduled to be released later this year. Only time will tell whether the government’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions within the offshore wind O&M operations will become a reality.

Look out for our next article in our offshore windfarm series, coming within the next few weeks, which will provide our analysis of the current, and potential future, landscape of the O&M market.

This article was written by Ross Howells