Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced significant investment in UK port infrastructure and huge enthusiasm for offshore wind and its potential to deliver net zero, create many thousands of jobs and increase UK businesses’ ‘competitive standing on the global stage’
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult sits at the heart of this opportunity and we are clear in our vision of how UK innovation can deliver on its potential. The Prime Minister’s announcement is just the beginning of the government’s plans for a Green Industrial Revolution and I would like to set out how we believe we can maximise the UK growth from that revolution.
First and foremost, the commitment to supporting infrastructure and the UK manufacturing sector is tremendous. Many thousands of jobs can come not just from the manufacture of turbines and their key components, such as blades, bearings, towers and foundations, but also the balance of plant that makes up over 50% of the investment in windfarm infrastructure, such as cables and grid. And the port infrastructure to support delivery and installation of that equipment is a critical enabler for our industry.
But there is so much more potential to be realised and, as we look to a green economic recovery, we need to be bold in our ambition to seize a massive share of a huge global market.
We foresee an innovation and technology-driven offshore wind supply chain that can be bigger and stronger than ever previously planned, addressing a market opportunity that stretches far beyond our domestic requirements, not to mention delivering upon environmental aspirations. And that is not just in turbine and infrastructure manufacture, but in supporting technologies such as robotics, data and digital and artificial intelligence for long-term smarter and safer operations and maintenance.
Now is the time to focus on specific investment and policy decisions that will in turn drive private sector confidence in future investment and deliver real economic benefits throughout the UK, but especially in economically deprived coastal towns and cities in the northeast, Humber, south west of England, Wales and Scotland.
The PM has said that he has a 10-point plan and we look forward to learning more in the coming months, but here is our own nine-point plan of specific measures that could be implemented rapidly and to maximum effect.
Support needs to be in place to enable supply chain companies to address the opportunities presented by the offshore wind market. Through last year’s Offshore Wind Sector Deal, the industry has funded a £100M (US$130M), 10-year supply chain development programme, the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership. Match funding to accelerate and grow this programme will enable the most promising UK supply chain companies to increase productivity and competitiveness, particularly from parallel sectors hard-hit by the economic downturn such as automotive and aerospace.
We should look to directly address the huge market requirement for operations and maintenance (O&M), focusing capability and technology development and support around three core themes of next-generation operations and controls, inspection, maintenance and repair and O&M decarbonisation.
In Blyth, ORE Catapult operates the largest open-access testing facilities for next-generation turbines in the world, attracting world-leading companies to our shores to prove their technologies, and enabling UK research and supply chain opportunity. If we are to continue to attract the best in the world and facilitate UK manufacture, it is imperative that we stay at the forefront of technological development and continue to invest in such facilities and capability.
The growth of offshore wind in recent years has been driven by phenomenal success in cost reduction, driven largely by growth in turbine size at a pace no one ever predicted, and we know they continue to get bigger.
Today, we are working with GE Renewable Energy to bring their 12-MW Haliade-X – one of the largest turbines in the world – to market. But tomorrow’s turbines will be 14 MW or 15 MW, and then who knows – 20 MW and beyond? So, let us look now towards transformational manufacturing innovation for next-generation turbines.
We should accelerate the creation of a UK manufacturing hub on the east coast to cover cables, next-generation rotor blades and towers, facilitating inward investment of OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers to generate increased UK content and create high value, sustainable jobs.
Through targeted grants, in combination with the Freeport initiative, we can facilitate investment decisions and make the UK attractive when compared with other European sites.
The UK’s bearing industry has the potential to address the major challenges around resilience, weight and scale for the larger turbines of tomorrow. We propose creating a world-leading hub for this capability, positioning the UK as a leader in large bearings expertise by creating a compelling eco-system of critical facilities, paired with technical expertise and a world-class research programme to generate UK IP, and attract industry match funding and collaborative R&D, creating jobs and gross value added from turbine component supply.
The Prime Minister rightly identified the huge potential for floating offshore wind, accessing and harvesting limitless clean energy from deeper waters not just around our own coasts, but in many key markets around the world, such as China, the US and Japan.
ORE Catapult, with stronger industry backing and support, has established the Floating Offshore Wind Centre of Excellence, and we must now look to deliver scale to drive down costs and create opportunities for the local supply chain, driving innovation in manufacturing, installation and O&M.
Let us look to our strengths and protect the skills and capabilities from the oil and gas industry and leverage them in the growth and future delivery of offshore wind. As we rightly and rapidly transition to a net-zero future, we should look to labour and supply chain transition, decommissioning, consenting barriers, hydrogen integration, carbon capture and storage and Clean Maritime.
Demonstration of new technologies ‘at scale’ is a barrier to entry for new entrants to the market, and we should look to invest in expanding existing demonstration capabilities in the UK. The Blyth Offshore Demonstration site off the Northumberland coast has a unique position as a ready-consented site suitable for floating wind demonstration combined with hydrogen.
Through an innovation contract for difference or similar to bridge the funding gap, we could realise an ‘innovation’ test and demonstration project using innovative UK content that requires further operational experience before full investment can be made.
The UK leads the world in offshore wind today. We have more experience of installing and maintaining offshore windfarms than anyone else, and future demand is not just here in the UK.
With the right moves now to foster innovation, build on that UK capability and grow our supply chain, we can ensure many tens of thousands of jobs and many billions of pounds in economic activity – all delivering on our net-zero commitments – over the next thirty years and beyond.
*Andrew Jamieson is chief executive at the ORE Catapult in the UK