(High Level Reading Piece)
“It’s choppy on the way out,” he said. “How are you on boats?”
The fierceness of the sun’s rays on the back of my neck, the captain’s weathered face and his easy-going manner combined to induce more confidence than fear. Surely the weather wouldn’t be that different out in the channel? We chugged peaceably out of the marina, the duck-green waters giving off a mossy tang, and belying his warning of strong waves ahead. The clue was in the destination, though: we were heading towards a wind farm called Rampion, currently under construction about ten to eighteen miles off the Brighton coast.
Map on left. Approach to Rampion. The green markings on the monitor (right) shows the cabling routes to the on-site substation.
Ten minutes later my friends at the helm were drenched in seawater and I was holding on to a ladder trying not to get catapulted overboard by the bucking, plunging boat as it reared and dived through the swell towards the lines of posts rising out of the sea on the horizon ahead.
The name Rampion, also known as the ‘Pride of Sussex’, is inspired by the name of a purple, spiky flower that blossoms on the Sussex Downs between July and August, and whose shape resembles not so much the blades of the turbines themselves as the claws of the cranes building them.
Rampion, the ‘Pride of Sussex’ flowering on the Sussex Downs
After seven years of consultation and environmental impact assessments, Rampion finally got underway in January 2016 and is the first marine wind farm to be built in the south of England. The estimated £1.3 billion project is being overseen by three main stakeholders, UK energy company E-On, the Green Investment Bank and Canadian energy company, Enbridge, and should be completed by the end of 2018. E-On forecasts an output of 400MW (megawatts) of clean energy to the national grid; that’s enough to power 347,000 homes a year based on current domestic use averages, equivalent to half the homes in Sussex.
On the boat we had now reached the site and the extreme rocking had subsided into a more manageable bobbing motion. At this point the water is thirty metres deep and each foundation pole is sunk a further thirty metres down into the sea bed. Tidal swell causes drift and erosion at the base of the poles so rocks are shipped from Norway to prop in a wide radius around the bases adding further support on the sea floor. By the end of last year, all 116 monopole foundations had been planted, many of them with their yellow transition bases fitted, rising 20 metres above the water, and onto which the main poles are fitted before adding the nacelles, or turbines, and each of the three blades. By this point, a short winter with relatively fine weather in maritime terms had put Rampion ahead of schedule.
Yellow transition post connects foundation pole beneath water to pole and eventual turbine above
It was from about that time that I had starting following the sprouting of faint white stalks on the misty horizon from the seafront near my home in Hove, and my dog had been treated to more than her usual quota of daily walks as I grew increasingly intrigued by the speed and precision with which the project seemed to be moving. It wasn’t simply the positive environmental aspect than drew me to watch so closely, but something more aesthetic perhaps. By March this year the first turbine was completed, nine miles offshore directly in line with, and almost as high as, the i360 on the Brighton seafront. At 140 metres in height from water level to blade tip these towers bore a majesty that surpassed the i360 and a grace closer in affinity to its neighbour, Brighton’s iconic Peace Statue, a sober-faced angel, her wings fearsomely aligned and honed.
Matching the peace statue in grace, if not the i360 in height
My friends were now openly laughing at me as I waxed lyrical about the turbines, these angels of the channel, and to force me out of the sublime and into the prosaic we spent the rest of the time taking selfies and drinking hot chocolate. Steve, the captain, and his partner Caroline, were extremely hospitable and informative, not to say tolerant as our party of six, lacking any kind of sea legs, staggered about deck, giggling and wowing at the MPI Discovery construction vessel working in front of us.
The components for eight turbines at a time come from Esbjerg in Denmark on the MPI Discovery, a ship which once positioned next to each foundation lowers six steel legs and lifts itself out of the water, creating a stable platform for installation. The components are lifted into place with a crane and secured with bolts. It takes more or less a day to install each turbine, from the time the vessel is jacked-up to its jack-down, when it moves to the next foundation to start the process again. Once all eight turbines are in place, MPI Discovery returns to Esbjerg to collect the next set of components for a further eight turbines, in a continuous operation.
MPI Discovery, the transport and construction platform vessel delivering the components
As much activity takes place below the level of the water as above, with the digging of trenches for the cabling which will be trained from each turbine into the onsite substation, where they are gathered into one conduit and conducted to land, transforming the power generated by the wind farm to a usable wattage for the electrical substation on land in Bolney, north of Shoreham, now also nearing completion. Once all the nacelles with their blades are fitted the site will be commissioned in sync, to start all the turbines working at the same time.
Apart from the mind-spinning science and wonders of engineering, be it harnessing the elements of wind, earth and sea, or designing the luxury of the workers’ floatels (floating hotels) which house everyone in weekly shifts, it is always the turbines themselves that keep me in thrall. As we turned to shore and ploughed into the lessening swell for home, the sunset cast the plantation lines of turbines into chrome silhouettes, giving them a sci-fi aspect and me the realisation, not for the first or last time, that these sentinels of science were not just a boat trip novelty and experimental technology anymore. Whether loved or loathed, wind farms are changing the horizons of land and sea not just for this generation but for those in the decades to come.