We are living through one of the biggest energy transitions of our time, with offshore renewables growing over recent decades to become a multi-billion pound industry on track to be the backbone of our future energy needs. As is the case with all industries coming of age, the growth curve has been substantial but there remain significant challenges to overcome.
To ensure the ongoing success of the offshore renewable energy sector, cross-sector and “mission-led” innovation has a crucial role to play, as identified in the government’s industrial strategy. Achievements such as the Apollo moon landings and the birth of the internet all came about through mission-led innovation, an approach that focuses on identifying major societal challenges, then creating a constructive framework to allow input from a range of collaborators across multiple sectors.
Open innovation – the idea that organisations can embrace a mindset that helps them take advantage of solutions and opportunities generated outside their organisation – can also be useful when addressing challenges. Smaller, highly innovative companies – like those ORE Catapult is engaged with – are crucial to providing these technological advances necessary to solve pinch-points.
Recognising the similarities in challenges other industries have overcome and adapting their solutions to work in renewable energy has several obvious benefits, not least of which is the efficiencies of technological adaptation over creation. Successful cross-sector innovation means casting the net wider than the established big industry players and giving everyone the opportunity to make a difference.
Some of the solutions required to tackle the current challenges in renewable energy, such as working beyond the visual line of sight, are successfully being trialled in other industries such as oil and gas, aerospace and defence, but future solutions could also be sitting sketched on the computer of an ambitious innovator, keen for the opportunity to test a theory.
There is also a recognisable critical mass of research strength across several sectors, including offshore renewable energy, in the UK. Mission-led innovation can frame this strength, and ultimately provide an outlet for commercialising this research through mechanisms such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
Uncovering these new technological solutions means increasing awareness of the support mechanisms that currently exist to give innovators, at all levels, the confidence and support required to robustly evaluate their ideas and take viable solutions to market.
One such initiative is phase three of the Knowledge Exchange Network, launched in April by the Energy Technology Partnership (ETP). ETP is an alliance of 13 Scottish universities offering world-class capability and resources in energy technology development. It gives Scottish technology developers access to the nation’s leading academics and researchers to help grow their ideas from concept – using feasibility studies, validation and modelling – through to the next stage of development.
To best take advantage of the opportunities that cross-sector innovation offers, it is essential that the right support is available. ORE Catapult has several initiatives that can help both draw technologies developed in other sectors into offshore renewable energy and allow small companies to gain valuable feedback on their solutions, demonstrating them in real-world scenarios at world-class facilities purpose-built for helping develop offshore renewable energy technology solutions.
It is right to acknowledge that there are barriers to innovation, but they are far from insurmountable and should not be a disincentive to those offering viable solutions for the offshore wind industry.
Through clear identification of the challenges, effective communication of the opportunities, and a robust infrastructure to test the validity of solutions, regardless of their origin, we can secure a bright future for the offshore renewable energy sector. This will enable us to deliver on the ambitious growth targets set out in the joint UK government/industry Offshore Wind Sector Deal, laying the foundations for decades of future development and the ability to capitalise on global market opportunities.