It’s great news that expansion in offshore wind could create up to 30,000 new jobs in manufacturing and bring £3billion of investment to the north-east of England – or as BERR parochially puts it, the north-east, forgetting that there is also the north-east of Scotland.
The statement pumped out on July 21 by the Department of Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform rightly highlights the strengths of what remains one of the industrial powerhouses of Britain. However, it potentially also represents a threat to Scotland unless there is proper cross-border liaison between Edinburgh and London to ensure reasonable equity of opportunity. Basically, what I’m worried about is that Scotland will lose out to the rest of the UK in the headlong rush to establish major manufacturing and project integration facilities.
Crank the clock back 40-odd years to the early days of North Sea oil&gas and those of us with long memories will recall that the UK Government sought to ensure a wide geographic spread of offshore fabrication yards. That some facilities ultimately got little or no work is neither here nor there. The point is that a concerted effort was made to spread the jam. It was brave and it was done despite the lack of detailed knowledge about how the market for offshore production facilities might shape up.
Analytical modelling techniques of the kind routinely used today basically did not exist at that time; instinct played a large part in the decision-making process. Of course, those were simpler days. Today, the detail that goes into trying to second-guess where a particular market might be going can be anal, arguably with too much emphasis on the numbers and not enough on instinct. Then there is that small matter of EU competition laws, bureaucracy and, of course, in the case of wind energy, ferocious established players on the other side of the North Sea ready to mop up UK offshore opportunities.
And if you don’t believe me, go check out the Luneort project at Bremerhaven, in Germany – it is quite something. Some 250million euros is being invested in making Bremerhaven one of Europe’s key centres for the wind industry, and both Nordex and Vestas have already made extensive use of the port for exporting turbines overseas.
The Luneort site comprises 60 hectares of designated heavy industrial space, much of which is under development or already occupied. Moreover, Luneort possesses excellent road and rail access, much of which derives from the fact that Bremerhaven is one of Europe’s major gateway ports, albeit it has gone through rough times over the past 20 years or so.
Luneort absolutely dwarfs what is happening in the UK, and that includes Lowestoft, where well known oil&gas-related engineering and fabrication brand SLP Energy has established an offshore renewables facility.
The German complex is a place where large (currently 5MW) turbine power-heads, blades, towers and substructures can be manufactured, integrated and loaded out by sea. Multibrid’s facility, for example, is geared to the 5MW turbine and it has a 3,000sq m heavy-lift manufacturing facility that started up last year.
RePower is building a manufacturing plant that is due to start up this year – initially 5MW machines, but upgrading to 6MW when this model is ready. Outline capacity for the generator heads is up to 80-100 units per annum. The company also inaugurated a purpose-built blade manufacturing plant in Bremerhaven .
Luneort offers manufacturers what they need – a location where large marine application wind turbines can be churned out, loaded aboard ships and delivered anywhere. Additionally, it is plugged into the European trunk-road and rail networks. It begs the question as to why windfarm developers should even bother with the UK, where we are shockingly far behind.
However, Luneort cannot alone service the huge demand that is clearly now gathering momentum and it is important that the UK tries to create look-alikes in several locations.
To some extent, that is already happening; equally, there is evidence of joined-up thinking in Britain’s corridors of political power. There is the realisation that, while we are 20 years behind when it comes to manufacturing bog standard turbines, it is possible to establish a leading position offshore by applying North Sea oil&gas nous to solve the many problems that currently dog turbines planted in the marine environment.
I’m not surprised that the north-east of England has been singled out for special attention by BERR. The region possesses many of the credentials needed to compete against the likes of Bremerhaven, which is a key reason why, for example, Californian turbine manufacturer Clipper Wind has invested in the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC) at Blyth.
It is blessed by having a particularly dynamic trade association in the shape of NOF Energy, which has been shrewd enough to tap into Aberdeen’s resources via a link-up with Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce.
It cheers me that Margaret Fay, chairman of local development body One NorthEast, has had the presence of mind to state clearly that the region is “well placed to spearhead the UK’s development of offshore windfarms”. I believe she’s right. I’ve been there and my instinct tells me that the region has what it takes to win a huge renewables prize – leadership, people and basic infrastructure. What a pity it is that the outgoing chairman of Scottish Enterprise, Sir John Ward, has, to my knowledge, not expressed equal determination to ensure that, for example, Aberdeen plays a pivotal role in the UK offshore renewables race, partnered by Fife and, while we’re at it, the Cromarty Firth, too – even if, technically, it’s the preserve of Highlands & Islands Enterprise, which is busily trying to find a new future for the semi-moribund offshore fabrication yard at Nigg.
It would help, too, if Energy Minister Jim Mather visibly ensured thoroughgoing cohesion. He’s a decent guy and I’m certain he’s working his brief diligently.
I suppose it helps and hinders him that Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is so tuned into energy – and articulate, too.
But perhaps Mather’s office will one day proactively get in touch with Energy and offer a no-holds-barred strategic conversation? I’ll look forward to the call.