South West England. A sprawling patchwork of forest and farmland hugging a heartland of granite moor and fringed by dramatic coastal cliffs and bay beaches. There is a sense of crossing time zones into a slower pace of life. A rural idyll perhaps. But certainly not a technological frontierland. And yet, beyond and below the wonderful ‘natural capital’ of Devon and Cornwall, a renewable energy revolution is brewing – the sleepy South West is emerging as the UK’s Natural Powerhouse.
Along its shores, the power of wave and wind are all too obvious. The nearshore waters have long been a testing ground for the deployment of new technologies such as wave and tidal energy, but now on the horizon is the exciting prospect of offshore wind. Wind farms are an integral (and contested) part of the region’s onshore landscape but that potential does not stop at the beach.
For the last decade, the UK’s renewable energy development target – now 40GW by 2030 – has focused on the North Sea. But now, as a marine energy infrastructure of interconnectors, oil and gas platforms and pipelines jostles with communications cables, mineral dredging, navigation and fisheries, seaspace in the UK’s eastern seaboard is at a premium. To satisfy the ambitions of our soaring appetite for clean wind power, we need to look to our less congested offshore areas.
The marine extent of Devon and Cornwall measures over 88,000 square kilometres – almost 10 times larger than the land area. The deeper seas of these Western Approaches do not allow for towering turbines to be anchored to the seabed, but instead require the deployment of new floating wind technologies. Deeper seas allow floating turbines to be sited nearer to shore (as close as 20km) and extend far offshore, accessing wind regimes capable of generating energy capacities of least 15GW and perhaps more than 50GW.
It may be that distant offshore Devon and Cornwall wind fields will find more acceptance among residents and visitors than equivalent developments on land. But, as in the North Sea, exploiting the physical power of offshore wind will potentially bring renewable energy development into conflict with the biological ecosystems that sustain fisheries and aquaculture and underpin marine conservation as well as other maritime activities and coastal communities.
To grasp this challenge we need to reframe natural asset leadership and bring together sectors that don’t normally interact as a partnership, to deliver mutual benefit through sustainable development.