Shortage of Specialised Vessels to Support North Sea Wind Farm Expansion

The UK government and wind farm developers have set ambitious targets for expanding offshore wind farm capacity in the North Sea. However, a serious global shortage of specialised support vessels is threatening to jeopardise their plans.

There are several reasons why the UK needs to build more wind farms. Offshore wind power is one of the best sources of renewable energy, and it is central to the government reaching its clean energy goals and its legally-binding target of ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Furthermore, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the global costs of natural gas and oil have increased sharply, leading to higher energy bills and calls to urgently reduce the UK’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. The crisis has brought our lack of energy security into sharp focus.

However, the UK’s offshore wind targets can only be met if the necessary infrastructure is in place – including the vessels required for installing underwater foundations, laying cables, transporting heavy construction materials and transferring crews.

Not only does the wind farm industry need more of these specialised vessels, it needs them to be bigger and stronger than before. The wind turbines being manufactured nowadays are generally larger and more powerful than earlier models, so many of the existing vessels on the market are too small or technically ill-equipped to handle the necessary installation, transportation, construction and maintenance.

Because of the growing vessel shortage, there is now stiff competition between wind farm developers in the UK, European countries such as Norway, France, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands, and others around the world. As a result, there is widespread concern about whether there will be enough of them to go around in the years and decades to come.

Currently there is not much sign that the ship-building industry and its associated supply networks are expanding quickly enough to satisfy the surge in demand. Meanwhile, additional challenges such as skills shortages and a lack of port and harbour capacity are exacerbating the wind farm vessel shortage, and creating even more complex shifts in energy market dynamics.