Opinion

Where are the Big Boys? Will we ever get the message and build the stuff?

Opinion: Universities should be innovation hotbeds
Dick Winchester

I’m quite sure that like me most readers will have been following or are at least aware of the takeover battle between the UK/Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and its US rival Pfizer with the latter being the “aggressor”.

If it goes ahead then it will be the largest ever takeover of a UK company but there is a huge amount of opposition to the deal due to the risk of losing British research and development capacity and the loss of control of what is an exceedingly important company in terms of its contribution to our economy.

The AstraZeneca v Pfizer story is headline news in many of the media outlets including television and newspapers. It’s also been heavily discussed on the social media networks including Twitter.

Receiving much less attention but of great significance for the renewables industry, has been the attempted acquisition of the French engineering company Alstom by the US giant GE and indeed the sale by Rolls Royce of its oil/gas division to the German conglomerate Siemens. The oil/gas division sells mainly gas turbine systems for power generation.

For the renewable energy world the interesting aspect of the Alstom sale is that Alstom bought Rolls Royce’s tidal generation company and associated technologies. That will presumably now end up under GE’s wing.

But in addition and perhaps of longer term importance, GE is the only company that I know of that has developed a gas turbine generator capable of running on hydrogen. Given Siemens’ other extensive interests in renewables I wonder whether they will now develop that same capability but based on Rolls Royce technologies.

Of course, the UK is essentially a bit part player in all this particular acquisition game. We seem to be just sitting on the side-line watching what’s going on but then that’s not unusual.

In fact, it got me thinking what companies there are now in the British Isles and especially Scotland that might be minded to develop a real renewables technology capability.

Are there any large or even largish engineering groups around which we might be able to finally create a renewables industry with some real global potential and indeed to compete with the likes of Siemens or GE which are both serious, grown-up and very large companies determined to be major players in the renewables sector?

One of the most obvious is BAe Systems. It’s one of our largest hi-tech engineering companies but as far as I can tell is only involved in renewables to the extent that it’s provided some technical assistance to a number of other companies already in the sector.

In fact, I was actually told by one of their engineers that BAe’s management took the view that renewable technology wasn’t their “core business”.

The “core business” excuse is to my mind something developed by people with little vision and too much concern for shareholder sensitivity.

That said, BAe does have a subsidiary involved in the development of hybrid and electrical drive systems which have been used in bus and coach systems primarily in the UK and US.

They have – for example – worked with the very excellent Alexander Dennis bus and coach builder which is based near Glasgow. However, BAe is also involved in the development of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered bus in the US, which is something I find very interesting in the context of what Aberdeen City Council is doing in this regard.

One of the other companies in Scotland that one might think would be active in renewables is Aggreko. This firm provides temporary generators for events, construction projects and so on and so forth.

I’m afraid though that one of its public relations chaps had me in stitches recently. Confused by the lack of detail on Aggreko’s website related to its renewables-related activity I thought I’d ask the firm’s PR people in London what exactly this meant.

I foolishly assumed that given the company’s generators are all based on diesel engines then it would be the use of bio-diesel or maybe even hydrogen enhanced fuels or something similar.

I was wrong. Turns out Aggreko’s renewables credentials are based on the fact that it provides diesel generators for use on renewables construction sites and as auxiliary units on large offshore wind turbines.

What a disappointment that was! Still, I guess it’s a start and maybe it will encourage the firm to get further involved as time goes on.

Next I looked at the Weir group.

Well known for its products in the oil and gas sector it’s probably not realised that in the US Weir owns a subsidiary called Weir American Hydro that builds hydro power turbines and associated products.

So this company definitely is a player in the renewables sector but not here. That’s a pity because I think Weir could have a lot to offer particularly with regard to marine renewables.

In fact, it’s a pity Weir didn’t buy Rolls Royce’s tidal generation business. After all, it has recently set up an agreement with Rolls Royce’s power systems subsidiary MTU to develop power systems specifically engineered for hydraulic fracturing so there is a relationship there.

Other large UK companies have some fingers in the renewables pie. For example, GKN, which is a major aerospace and land systems engineering company, owns an interesting Germany company called Stromag which among other things builds brakes for wind turbines.

What my albeit short survey into who is doing what confirmed my concern that there is really no large UK or Scottish company sufficiently involved in the renewable sector to be considered a major player.

I know there are lots of smaller companies doing stuff such as seabed surveys, consultancy work building offshore wind turbine bases and so on, and this is all good news but I’m looking for that major development that tells me that we’ve really grasped the nettle and are genuinely taking the renewables industry seriously.

A local project is a case in point. It may seem somewhat bizarre that Aberdeen City Council chose to demonstrate its renewables credentials by doing a deal to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell buses with a Belgian bus builder, a German-owned provider of hydrogen gas and refuellers and a Canadian electrolyser manufacturer.

It’s hardly supporting indigenous industry and it may seem that giving such a massive boost to our international competitors is strategically inept.

Fact is though that not a single UK company let alone a Scottish one could have provided this technology and that’s something we would really be worried about if we were a normal country with normal economic and industrial policies but then of course we’re not are we?

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