The renewables component of the UK’s new energy security strategy, due to be published this week, is expected to focus on the development of offshore wind farms. It may also put forward controversial proposals to relax planning laws to allow the construction of more onshore wind turbines. But if the government is to reach its own target of decarbonising all electricity generation by 2035, it will need to take radical action. 

The Prime Minister is right to prioritise the development of offshore wind. There is currently much less installed capacity in offshore wind turbines than there is in onshore ones. Despite this, offshore wind is able to contribute proportionately far greater actual energy generation than onshore wind because the wind blows more consistently and strongly out at sea and bigger turbines can be built there. 

It is possible to build new infrastructure at significant scale offshore in a way that just isn’t possible on the densely populated soil of the UK. There’s a type of offshore wind infrastructure which appears not to have been properly discussed even though it would be a game changer:  building a new grid in the North Sea into which all the countries with wind turbines in these waters – chiefly the UK, Scandinavian and Northern European countries – could pour the electricity which they generated. The UK was once a member of the North Seas Energy Cooperation (NSEC) and subscribed to the development of a North Sea Grid system, but this is no longer the case after Brexit.

The energy security strategy is expected to recommend ramping up the UK’s exploitation of fossil fuel resources in the North Sea, even though this is not a sustainable long-term solution. But building a North Sea Offshore Grid for electricity from wind is; one which could truly revolutionise the UK’s energy supply.

A North Sea Offshore Grid would open up the potential to pipe a significant proportion of the electricity from offshore turbines directly into mainland Europe. Possibly because it’s not a UK stand-alone project but would involve cooperation with the EU – it is not currently being much discussed. However, the NSEC is not an EU members only club. With the UK likely to remain by some margin the primary energy generator in Europe for offshore wind, it is surely a must to regain membership.

A major limiting factor on the UK’s existing offshore wind power is difficulties in getting the power that it generates into the grid fast enough. With a bespoke offshore grid available, the UK could soon be producing enough electricity from offshore wind not only to significantly contribute to its national power requirements, but to produce a surplus.

This surplus could then be piped directly into the EU and sold. The UK could become one of the energy generating powerhouses of Europe, making a profit and helping to plug the gap left by Russian oil. Should this seem like an unrealistic prospect, it’s worth remembering that Scotland is already able to produce more electricity from onshore wind alone than it needs, and is able to pass on the surplus to the rest of the UK.

Onshore, the situation is very different. The pros and cons of controversial proposals in the strategy to relax current planning laws around onshore wind have been much debated recently. However, there is an even more far reaching impact that retaining prohibitive planning laws are having on the UK’s ability to meet its target of producing all electricity from renewables by 2035. 

The existing laws and regulations present a triple threat to progression. Not only do they currently effectively place a moratorium on the building of new wind turbines, they also effectively place similar potential restrictions on the development of renewables plants that include a hybrid mix of solar panels, wind turbines and energy storage. These sites facilitate getting more power onto the grid and so they will be absolutely vital to the UK.

There are also those onshore wind sites in England whose turbines are nearing the end of their operational lives and will need to be replaced, a process that is known as “repowering” that involves gaining permission to install larger turbines. Whilst the repowering of existing sites is not as prohibited, planning laws as they currently stand leave the future of these sites vulnerable to future changes in national policy. This is vital to recognise if we wish to avoid eroding the established baseline of renewable generation.

Mike Kelly is the renewable energy director at environmental business RSK.