Saturday, December 18, 2010

"...these are certainly the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the world"

Round 3 of the U.K.'s ambitious offshore wind initiative is indicative of the scale of renewable energy projects that will be necessary to meet the European Union's aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within time frames that can effectively mitigate the worst-case climate change scenarios.

This appears to be at odds with the "Small as Beautiful" philosophy that guided the creation of the appropriate technology movement in the U.S. back in the 1970's.

Perhaps the two can be reconciled if we can craft a truly sustainable industrial revolution that revitalizes manufacturing leading to the creation of community-saving jobs as part of a network of green supply chains. (GW)

Giant windfarms are lifting hopes – but could the east coast miss the boat?

Ports such as Grimsby hope to cash in on the turbines boom but fear others may profit

By David Conn
17 December 2010

In an airless Westminster committee room this week a shirtsleeved energy secretary came close to promising the earth. Laying out government plans to make renewable electricity more profitable to produce than smokestack, greenhouse gas-producing power, Chris Huhne said the market reforms would mark "a seismic shift" towards cleaner energy, underlining David Cameron's vow to be "the greenest government ever".

Up on the windy north-east coast, recession-lashed ports such as Grimsby and Hull have been eyeing the prospect of building huge windfarms for the North Sea for many years now.

But here at the sharp end they remain to be convinced that Huhne's long-term changes to the market are quite the kick-start that is needed to revolutionise the UK's industrial future.

Throughout the UK it is striking how unaware most people are of the enormous scale and ambition of Britain's planned "round 3" offshore windfarms.

Thanet, a "round 2" site with 100 turbines so far, located about seven miles off Foreness Point, Kent, opened two months ago and is now the largest offshore windfarm in the world. Yet it is a mere drop in the North Sea compared to the nine "round 3" sites set out on the coastal map produced by Crown Estates, which owns the rights to British waters.

The three sites to the east of Britain are on a staggering scale. Dogger Bank, off the Yorkshire coast, will fill close to 3,475 square miles, with 1,700 wind turbines. The Norfolk windfarm will cover an area larger than the county itself, while Hornsea, off Grimsby and the Humber, will be nearly as wide as England is from Hull to Liverpool.

"Looked at in their entirety," said the energy specialist Andrew Reid, of consultants Douglas Westwood, "these are certainly the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the world."

The mammoth windfarms are designed to generate sufficient electricity to meet the EU target for 30% of the UK's energy to come from renewables by 2020. More than that, for a country still figuring out how to rebuild a working economy from the wreckage of the banking crisis, renewables promise industrial reinvention.

Grimsby has held on to chemical manufacturing, steel production and food processing, but is still reeling from the collapse of fishing. The town views work on the windfarms as a natural extension of its marine tradition, and down on the docks, you find weathered industrial companies, former fishermen and the local council all hungry for it to start in earnest.

Kurt Christensen, who was born in Denmark and moved to Grimsby in 1955 with his fisherman father, left school at 15 and spent his life in the fishing industry, before the 1970s cod wars and, later, overfishing and quotas, meant the Grimsby boats dwindling from 450 to almost none. "In its heyday, Grimsby was a profitable town," he said. "Fishing was flourishing and people made a lot of money. The industry died by a thousand cuts, people lost their jobs, boats were decommissioned, and there was a lot of heartbreak."

Still involved in selling fish, he watched the "round 1" windfarms, Lynn and Inner Dowsing, take shape off Skegness, and dived in. He bought two boats, and secured a contract with the industrial company Siemens, supporting operation and maintenance work on the turbines as well as servicing the "floating hotel" ship for workers at sea.

"Fishermen are resilient, incredibly hard-working. People always looked for new work. We never became a call-centre town," Christensen said, an assertion you hear everywhere in Grimsby. "Offshore wind offers a great opportunity for people to work again in a real industry, and we feel the town deserves it."

Green shoots are visible. Lincs, a large "round 2" site, is under construction, the energy company Centrica is planning an operation and maintenance plant on Grimsby docks, and at the Catch industrial college, three apprenticeships have been created to train electrical engineers for the turbines.

The area of vast opportunity, though, is "round 3". In the Grimsby and Humber area 25,000 precious jobs could be generated, according to North East Lincolnshire council.

Scratch a little, however, and you find impatience with the government. Many people feel the government should lead solidly, not just reshape the market. There is, too, fury with the banks, for withholding finance from small firms. Christensen, despite his years of marine experience and contract with Siemens, could not get a loan from any bank. So, at the age of 56, he remortgaged his house. "Don't count on anything from the banks," he said. "Companies from overseas, particularly Denmark and Germany, are queuing to get involved in our waters, and it would be tragic if we don't make the most of this."

The government has already promised £60m in grants to upgrade whichever port Siemens selects as the site for a huge turbine manufacturing plant. Both banks of the Humber are vying for it: Able UK has earmarked a site on the south bank near Immingham, while Associated British Ports plans a "green port" on Hull's Alexandra dock.

In his smart new offices on a Grimsby business park, Winston Phillips assessed the situation. He is managing director of renewables for Cosalt, the only plc based in Grimsby. It began life in 1873 as The Great Grimsby Coal, Salt and Tanning Company, and between the wars was the world's largest fishing equipment supplier. Now it specialises in marine again, employing 45 technicians to service windfarms for Siemens. Phillips says the government should be more active and co-ordinate the emerging industry; otherwise British firms, and towns like Grimsby, will not secure enough of the work generating electricity off the UK coast.

"I went to a renewables conference recently attended by manufacturers and consultants," he said. "All the manufacturers were overseas companies – German, Danish, where the governments have invested heavily in industry. But all the consultants were British."

One of those consultants, Reid, calculates that just one 10th of all the investment made in UK offshore windfarms has so far gone to British firms. "Continental companies have typically won around 90% of contracts," he said. Alongside Siemens, big manufacturers committing to the east coast include GE, a US company, and Gamesa, based in Spain. There are concerns that unless "round 3" moves more quickly, smaller British companies will find it difficult to be involved even in the supply chain. "The government here is leaving everything to private companies and the market. But we need certainty. There is too little vision or leadership," said Phillips.

Sam Pick, a consultant with the Renewables Network, which represents smaller firms in the Grimsby area, agrees. He is sceptical about the government's planned "green investment bank", which Huhne admitted this week would not open any time soon. "Companies need to gear up now. We have heard constantly about the green investment bank, but it does not exist, and mainstream banks are not lending, even to people doing everything they can to be part of this revolution."

The view from the steel yard

The cold, muddy yard of the steel fabricating company SC4, in the shadow of the old Corus plant at Scunthorpe - now owned by Indian company Tata – seems another world from the air of satisfaction in Huhne's Westminster.

Shay Eddie's father, Edwin, started the business in 1983; it has survived the decimation of the steel industry, but this recession, Eddie grimaces, is "the worst we've ever seen," because the banks, hit themselves, have withdrawn finance.

"Three of our customers went bust last week," says Eddie, plain and factual. "It's like being in a forest fire, and it has accelerated since the government's cuts were announced in October."

Pointing with pride to men working on heavy equipment secured before the credit lines were cut, fabricating steel for customers including London's 2012 Olympic Stadium and Crossrail, Eddie reflects on the dilemma for companies like his. They can see great projects planned, at sea, but cannot do anything to touch them.

"There is work out there for generations," he says. "I'm banging the drum; we've been to every meeting and exhibition going. But the banks have cut off the lifeblood, and companies are going to the wall. The government talks about our industry, this area, being able to benefit, but it needs action fast. We're surviving by the skin of our teeth. It could be last man standing gets the work."

Wind rush gathers momentum

The sheer scale of the oil and gas industry shocked people when it arrived in Britain in the 1970s. Whole regions were transformed; remote places became sites of frantic industrial activity. In the rush, fortunes, and mistakes, were made.

The offshore wind energy revolution may be just as shocking.

The giant wind farms expected to be built in the second and third rounds of commissioning from 2014 onwards will need a new generation of ports. Thousands of miles of cable will have to be laid. The industry expects to spend £2.4bn just on new service craft.

So far, 25 British ports have registered to become "windports". Some are already beginning to feel the wind rush.

"In the next 10 years Britain will have to build around 50 times more offshore than it has so far to meet its 2020 target," said Nick Medic of the British Wind Energy Association. "People have no idea how big this project is. It will be colossal ... as transformative as the building of the rail systems."

But he admits it comes at an environmental price. The long road from fossil fuels to a greener Britain will be rancorous and full of surprises. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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