THOUSANDS of jobs could be created under plans to make the north an international centre for wind turbine manufacturing – but only if port chiefs act quickly.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has signed a deal with operators aimed at attracting investment of £100million and securing lucrative fabrication contracts.
But there are already fears that they could miss out to rivals in continental Europe if they delay.
A memorandum of understanding between HIE and four port operators – Global Energy Nigg, Port of Ardersier, Kishorn Port and Cromarty Firth Port Authority – means that the business agency will provide help with marketing the sites and winning planning permission.
Inverness Chamber of Commerce hailed the move a “fantastic opportunity” for the region.
However, HIE’s director of energy, Calum Davidson, warned last night: “There is a danger that, because continental Europe has established facilities, if we do not have these available then developers will look elsewhere.
“We want to avoid that situation and create an industry for the Highlands for the long term.”
The deep-water ports at Ardersier near Inverness, Invergordon, Nigg in Easter Ross and Kishorn in Wester Ross could all capitalise on plans to build massive offshore windfarms in the Moray Firth and off the west coast.
Last night, bosses at Port of Ardersier said they could be open by the start of next year.
The proposed development there would revitalise the former oil rig fabrication yard, which employed 4,500 people at its peak.
The site was closed by owner J. Ray McDermott in 2001 after almost 30 years of activity, resulting in the loss of 1,300 jobs.
It is hoped the proposals to reopen the yard could lead to 1,500 jobs.
A spokesman for Port of Ardersier said planning applications to turn the yard into a port could be lodged with Highland Council in the spring and the yard could be up and running by early 2014.
A spokesman for Kishorn Port said yesterday it also hoped to lodge a planning application in the next “two or three months”, with the potential of about 1,000 jobs.
Global Energy said it was too early to comment on how many jobs could be created at Nigg.
First Minister Alex Salmond, who announced the HIE agreement at the Offshore Wind and Supply Chain Conference in Aberdeen, said: “These ports are ideally positioned to become key hubs for the deployment of offshore wind, wave and tidal energy – across manufacturing, assembly, operations and maintenance.”
HIE chief executive Alex Paterson said: “The offshore wind supply chain is showing strong interest in Scottish ports and harbours, and these official agreements give the market the strongest possible statement that the ports in the Highlands and islands are open for renewables business.”
The National Renewable Infrastructure Plan (N-Rip) identified a number of key sites across Scotland offering development opportunities for the offshore wind industry.
Nigg, Ardersier and Kishorn are seen as potential manufacturing sites, and Invergordon as a potential operations and maintenance location.
The news was welcomed by business leaders in the Highlands last night.
David Richardson, the Federation of Small Businesses’ development manager for the Highlands and islands, said: “What matters now is that the Highland economy squeezes maximum benefit from this investment.”
Inverness Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stewart Nicol said: “It is a fantastic opportunity for the region.”