If the UK becomes the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind, where does the North East fit in?

November 9, 2020

While coronavirus continues to decimate many sectors – hospitality and arts and culture being two of its most high-profile victims – renewable energy is being heralded as the saviour of the UK economy. In fact, there’s so much confidence in offshore wind that the Prime Minister has announced he wants every house in the UK to be powered by it by 2030. Some have accused Boris Johnson of hot air and bluster, but there are others – especially in the North East – who welcome the announcement and see major potential in backing a sector with strong roots in the region.

In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference on October 6, Boris Johnson made a powerful commitment to the offshore wind energy sector.

“We believe that in ten years’ time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country,” he told the virtual audience, adding “your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle – the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands.”

The Prime Minister pledged to increase the UK’s total offshore wind capacity from 30GW to 40GW by 2030 and announced that £160 million would be made available to upgrade ports and infrastructure.

“Far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts, and by upgrading
infrastructure in such places as Teesside and Humber, and Scotland and Wales, we will increase an offshore wind capacity that is already the biggest in the world,” he added.

Such actions, he continued, would help the sector support up to 60,000 UK jobs and further the country’s bid to become net-zero emissions by 2050.

Mr Johnson then boldly stated that he wanted the UK to be to offshore wind what Saudi Arabia is to oil – the type of political soundbite sure to secure headlines (this article an unapologetic case in point).

Some dismissed the lofty ambition as mere hyperbole from a beleaguered, populist leader trying to rally a bruised nation fatigued by a health and economy crisis whose finish line seems to be getting further away.

Others though, could see the opportunities of backing this burgeoning sector. Benj Sykes, industry chair of the Offshore Wind Industry Council, said: “Our global leadership in offshore wind, coupled with new support for investment in ports, will help unlock the huge opportunity for the UK to build a world- leading, competitive supply chain.”

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director- general, added: “Investment in port infrastructure and opening up already successful auctions for renewable electricity will help accelerate the construction of offshore wind farms and secure low-cost renewable power for homes and businesses.”

This positivity was echoed in the North East too.

Steve Scrimshaw, vice-president of Siemens Energy UK&I, said: “This is an ambitious announcement by
the Government. Offshore wind with hydrogen energy storage can provide reliable, clean energy and will be vital to achieving net-zero. The UK’s unique position means we can be at the forefront of developing deeper sea waters and the supply chain will welcome the commitment from Government in this innovative area.”

Dr Joanna Berry, director, business innovation and entrepreneurship at Durham Energy Institute, added: “As we emerge from the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the perfect time to build that sustainable future. Government needs to support a wide range of innovations, technologies and social adaption to create our Brave New World.”

Here, I look in more depth at the North East’s ecosystem around offshore wind energy to see just how well placed the region is to take advantage of the impetus being given to the sector.

Supply chain infrastructure

According to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the region is currently the leading location in England for wind energy.

“The North East has fantastic existing infrastructure across our three rivers,” Andrew Clark, energy programme lead at the North East LEP says. “We are recognised by the Offshore Wind Sector Deal [established as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy] as an advanced cluster.”

Joanne Leng, deputy chief executive of NOF and deputy chair of Energi Coast, agrees.

“For most global offshore wind projects around the world, the chances are that there’s been some North East of England contribution to it,” she says.

Energi Coast, the North East’s offshore wind cluster, recently completed a mapping exercise for the offshore wind supply chain, speaking to around 230 local businesses.

“The results show that we have a lot of experience in the balance of plant, installation and commissioning and the operations and maintenance stages of a wind farm project,” she explains.

“Something that also came through strongly is that we’re well prepared for offshore wind decommissioning – with this capability coming from our oil and gas heritage – not just the main structures but the cables and onshore infrastructure as well. That’s something that we need to push more as a region.”

James Battensby, head of research and business development at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, in Blyth, believes the region’s robust supply chain comes from a legacy of offshore expertise.

“The North East has a strong heritage, particularly in subsea, powertrain and electrical engineering – all of which are critical in the development of multi- billion-pound offshore wind farm assets,” he explains.

“A lot of companies on the North bank of the Tyne, and the wider region, worked in the oil and gas sector but over the last decade have transitioned into offshore wind.

“Many will now say it’s their core growth market.”

Though evidence shows the North East boasts a strong supply chain capable of servicing offshore wind farms around the world, that’s not to say that it couldn’t be improved.

A research study commissioned by the North East LEP highlights that there is currently no wind turbine manufacturing taking place within the region.

“Attracting inward investment from a manufacturer or the supply chain of either nacelles, rotor blades or towers for large wind turbines would strengthen this stage of offshore wind development, completing the North East’s offering,” it reports.

The deputy chair of Energi Coast also believes it’s essential the region secures “big anchor investments from Tier One contractors around towers, blades and turbines.”

Joanne explains: “If we can get those on board, they will feed the supply chain and we can grow businesses and create jobs.”

Innovation

An area where the North East excels in offshore wind energy is in its ability to foster innovation.

Undoubtedly, a pivotal facilitator for this is the ORE Catapult based in Blyth.

James reveals that the Catapult boasts around £250 million worth of testing and validating infrastructure at the Port of Blyth, including a 100-metre turbine blade testing facility (the largest in the world) and an additional 50-metre one, alongside powertrain testing facilities, subsea docks and an electrical laboratory.

“These are crucial in terms of de-risking a prototype development before it goes to market,” James says. “If you’re an SME and you’re trying to go to a major multinational wind farm developer, such as SSE, you need to demonstrate and prove your technology operates under extreme loads and extreme fatigue.”

The Catapult also provides a plethora of programmes and initiatives to support new technology development and is involved in national programmes such as the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership and the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub.

Regionally, it works with the North East LEP, the North of Tyne Combined Authority and local companies such as JDR Cables, SMD and Royal IHC to support local innovators develop their technology, attract partners and source investment.

This year, for example, the Catapult unveiled its first Launch Academy North East accelerator programme.

This provided six regional trailblazers – working on products that could enhance the region’s offshore wind sector – with technology advice and wider business support alongside access to £20,000 investment provided by the North East Innovation Fund, supported by the European Regional Development Fund, and managed by Northstar Ventures.

“We’ve provided the cohort with a tailored package of support over a six-month period, with modules on developing technology, how to structure finances, and information on research and development tax credits and IP protection – working with local partners such as Sintons law firm,” James explains.

Energi Coast is another driving force in encouraging innovation in offshore wind and is also involved in numerous regional and national programmes.

“The cluster recently launched its own Innovation Group, with members representing local project developers, academia, Tier One contractors, supply chain companies and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.

“We have a focus on some key themes, these include digitalisation, robotics, autonomous vehicles, AI, VR, AR and we are also working with major industry players who are providing industry challenges encouraging local suppliers to come up with solutions and new ideas,” Joanne reveals.

One emerging trend in the sector – and one that the Prime Minister singled out in his conference speech – is floating offshore wind, where turbines are constructed on platforms and can be placed in deeper waters with stronger wind yields. According to James, the North East is in an excellent position to be the front-runner in this area.

“The North East has established skillsets around the construction and fabrication of floating platforms for the oil and gas sector, and these can be transferred to the offshore wind floating platform design,” he says.

James also highlights hydrogen energy as having a potential role in solving storage and intermittency
issues in offshore wind, and so news that Teesside is to be the base for a new centre dedicated to hydrogen energy development could see further opportunities. Joanne also recognises the potential for cross-sector participation in offshore wind innovation.

“Some industries have the relevant skills to enter the offshore wind market, for example in oil and gas, defence, automotive and nuclear,” she says, “and at NOF and Energi Coast, we provide diversification support to help these high growth companies tap into the dynamic offshore wind sector.”

The LEP’s Andrew Clark concurs: “As the offshore wind sector innovates in areas such as robotics, AI and automation, the region’s wider strengths in our thriving digital and advanced manufacturing sectors will be supported to explore diversification opportunities.”

Skills

As the coronavirus pandemic looks set to dramatically increase levels of unemployment in the UK and the North East, the predictions for job creation in offshore wind are much welcomed.

Regionally, a 2020 North East LEP study explored several growth scenarios based on the UK’s planned offshore wind project pipeline. It showed that the North East offshore wind sector could support the creation of between 6000 and 9000 jobs by 2025.

“These roles will cover everything from project design, development and management operations, such as wind turbine technicians, training providers and electrical and mechanical engineers involved in the production of supply chain and plant equipment,” Andrew explains.

In terms of providing people with the right knowledge to take up these roles, the North East’s universities are hotbeds for skills in offshore renewables.

Newcastle University, for example, works with more than 34 partners as part of its National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, and Northumbria University offers courses in renewable and sustainable energy.

Durham University, meanwhile, boasts its Energy Institute, one of the key national research centres for renewable energy. Northumberland College also has a purpose-built training centre at the Port of Blyth, and Newcastle College’s Energy Academy, in Wallsend, features an Immersive Hybrid Reality (iHR) offshore wind training facility to help train future engineers.

Meanwhile, several private sector training providers have bases in the North East, including Maersk Training and AIS.

“Our further and higher education providers are already delivering leading sector-specific qualifications together with the supply chain, and we also have private sector training providers here with fantastic facilities and industry partners,” Andrew adds.

Energi Coast’s Joanne is also buoyed by the jobs potential for the offshore wind sector in the North East and is keen to point out that the net should be cast wide when it comes to recruitment.

“We must be prepared to upskill people and to retrain people, and to entice more women, younger people and those from other career paths, such as those leaving the military, into offshore wind.

“It’s important to show that this is a long-term career prospect with good salaries and added advantages, such as international travel, as this is such an emerging global business.”

Projects

The development of offshore wind farms represent multi-billion-pound investments and so to have the largest one being constructed 60 miles off the North East coast is a major coup for the region’s supply chain.

The Dogger Bank Wind Farm development is a joint venture partnership between SSE Renewables and Equinor, and once completed, will be capable of powering 4.5 million British homes.

Back in May this year, it was announced that Equinor and SSE Renewables
are building a new operations and maintenance base at the Port of Tyne to service Dogger Bank, which is expected to create up to 200 jobs.

At the time, Stephen Bull, senior vice president for Equinor’s North Sea New Energy Solutions, and chair of Renewable UK, said:

“The North East has a strong industrial heritage and a supply area that stretches north and south of the River Tyne. With a strong low-carbon vision for the future, as well as targets to become net-zero

in its own operations by 2030, the Port of Tyne is clearly well set up to attract future investments, which we hope will complement our activities.”

James agrees that the proximity of Dogger Bank is good news for the region.

“Having the world’s largest wind farm – with a several billion-pound value – built on the doorstep is a key enabler for regional companies to get involved,” he says.

Joanne also sees opportunities for the regional supply chain but reveals that work is needed to ensure as much UK involvement in major projects as possible.

“We need to seriously look at getting behind UK content because as a nation, we’re missing out,” she says. “What’s fundamental in helping to achieve our UK and local content ambition in the offshore wind sector deal is for Government to mandate this – UK projects should mean UK business.”

To encourage more North East success in major offshore wind projects, the North East LEP and Energi Coast have collaborated to create a supply chain directory that features regional companies and their products and services.

“Developing a supply chain database where any North East company that has a product or service for the offshore wind sector can register, will help them be more visible to potential clients,” Andrew explains.

But opportunities for the North East supply chain spread far beyond Dogger Bank, with offshore wind farms being developed across the globe.

James reveals: “In Europe, many offshore wind projects have been emerging over the last few years. Also, in the US, along its Eastern Seaboard around Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, and in Asia, Japan, China and Taiwan – these are really big growth areas.

“These represent major export opportunities for North East companies going forward.”

In an era of much uncertainty, it’s heartening to see one sector on course to rise to the challenges of a post-COVID-19 world.

What’s even better is that the North East’s subsea heritage, innovative bedrock, engaged support network, established skills sector and proximity to major projects mean it may well have stolen a march on other areas in reaping the benefits.

Further development of the ecosystem will be critical in further increasing these opportunities, which promises to blow much-needed jobs, pioneering growth, international recognition and – ultimately – long-term prosperity onto the shores of the North East.

Words by Alison Cowie

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