Describing himself as a “healthy realist”, Stuart Thornton’s passion for the renewables industry has seen him vocalise his concern for years about the shortage of foundation installation vessels for offshore wind and the need for developers to secure vessels early or face their projects being delayed, or not built at all.

His new role as UK manager and commercial director for Singapore-based Cyan Renewables supports a business strategy to invest more than $1 billion in heavy lift vessels and port infrastructure in the next three years.

The challenge is to convince developers to move away from the traditional, unsuitable tendering and procurement processes.

With 12 years under his belt with some of the world’s leading offshore wind companies, Stuart said any hope of achieving the UK’s wind target of 50GW by 2030 is now highly unlikely unless the UK government and key developers change the status quo.

“A small number of colleagues and I first identified the critical shortage of capable installation vessels in fixed bottom offshore wind in 2018. We showed that the ‘vessel bottleneck’ would start this year in 2024, and then escalate from there.

“Thus far, all our predictions have come true and now we face the reality that much of this critical global offshore wind infrastructure cannot be built within the required timeframe to meet net-zero.

Eastern Daily Press: Stuart Thornton, UK manager and commercial director at Cyan RenewablesStuart Thornton, UK manager and commercial director at Cyan Renewables (Image: CHPV)
“As you develop your career, you get known for certain things. For me, ‘Thornton’s Law’ has followed me around after a comment I made in a meeting to a client who only appeared to be focused on turbine installation and held little concern for foundation installation.

“I rather ironically quipped that I was fairly sure you need to put the foundations in before you install the turbines. Failing to do so renders the need for a turbine installation vessel rather moot.

“This unwittingly salient statement has very profound ramifications that demonstrate the fragility of the offshore wind supply chain.”

A critical shortage of anything undermines all other investments. Virtually all elements in the chain are on the critical path – there is no surplus. Vessels are one of the most critical items as they have the longest lead time and must be secured well in advance.

“Projects are now being delayed or cancelled due to vessel availability and this trend will only get worse,” said Stuart. “Despite warnings, only now is the industry waking up to this issue and fully understanding the risks and associated costs. Developers must commit to vessels early or their projects will not get built and their investment will be lost.”

Stuart joined Cyan in July 2023, reuniting him with a “dream team” of people he worked with in previous roles. Its strategy is to become Asia’s first dedicated offshore wind vessel owner and operator focused on the next generation of vessel designs.

The UK, he said, is the absolute core market of fixed bottom offshore wind and the potential to further exploit the UK’s strong start is massive.

“As a new market entrant, we are participating in tendering, but we also need to partner with our clients early if the next generation of vessels are to be built. Tendering in offshore wind can take as long as three years to conclude, with little to no certainty for the supply chain until FID (Financial Investment Decision) – usually 18 months before start of construction.

“Herein lies the problem. FID on the project comes a long time after FID on the vessel. It takes four years to develop and build a vessel. So, there is an inherent mismatch in the process.

“The industry faces multiple other challenges. It is well known that the planning system is too slow, dates for grid connection can be unreliable, and the Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction happens way too late in the process, which pushes back the critical project FID.

“All this makes any investment in the supply chain extremely difficult. Without critical and substantial investment, there will be less clean energy and fewer associated jobs.

“We need a ‘game changer’. The political pressure to relentlessly lower the Levelised Cost of Energy (LCoE) has forced the industry to procure through long-winded competitive tendering processes and adopt commercially defensive company structures through Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs).

Eastern Daily Press: In his spare time, Stuart likes to indulge his passion for motorbikesIn his spare time, Stuart likes to indulge his passion for motorbikes (Image: Simon Finlay)

“SPVs are project companies set up specifically to develop the project and protect the parent company from the risk of loss due to project failure. As such, SPVs do not operate with healthy budgets to limit losses in the event of failure.

“Projects struggle to make financial commitments before FID and thus really struggle to stimulate new-build vessels, without which a majority of their projects cannot be built – the SPV model creates a ‘catch 22’ situation that is further exacerbated by the late CfD and project FID.

“There must be systemic change to the way fixed bottom offshore wind is procured. The UK government has an opportunity to show some real global leadership here by restructuring the subsidy regime and using its economic stability to help bridge the gap between vessel and project FID.

“This is the ‘game changer’, this is my message. Without it, the UK loses its place as the world leader in offshore wind, its future energy security, and will have to renege on its legally binding commitments to fight climate change.”

Stuart’s career

When Stuart joined EEEGR as operations manager in 2008, he knew little about the industry but received “great insight” through his work with the organisation, catapulting his career during his four years there.

He joined the Fred. Olsen family at Global Wind Service in 2011 as UK manager, before he was approached for a transfer to parent company Windcarrier a year later as business development manager. As the two companies were perfectly aligned and offered enormous learning potential, he agreed to manage both UK companies.

“I learnt such a lot within Fred. Olsen Windcarrier and it introduced me to the heavy lift vessel market,” said Stuart.

“Working within the Fred. Olsen group was special. In week three of being with Global Wind Service I presented to the Prime Minister of Australia and the Crown Prince of Denmark (now the King) in Sydney and Melbourne. I was the only English person there and I was cooked for three times in one week by Rasmus Kofoed, who was at the time the world’s top chef.

“I also had the privilege of working with the Fred. Olsen. Then in his late eighties, he was still very active in the Oslo office and remains so to this day.

“I remember once standing with Fred. next to an empty column in one of the family’s many properties. It was evident that a picture had hung in that spot for some time until quite recently. I asked him what the picture had been. He said with quite an air of sadness and regret ‘this is where The Scream used to hang’.”

In 2019 Stuart was lured away by OHT to lead business development and tendering, before the business merged with another to become Seaway7. He gained further expertise in cable lay, and service and operation vessels before moving to Cyan Renewables.

Eastern Daily Press:  The weekends are an opportunity for Stuart to spend time with his two children The weekends are an opportunity for Stuart to spend time with his two children (Image: Stuart Thornton)

Stuart’s life

Born in Pontefract, Yorkshire, and brought up in Somerset, Stuart explored careers in law, teaching and overseas development, which attracted him to study at the University of East Anglia four times.

“I dropped out of school halfway through sixth form and went to college in Weston-Super-Mare before I moved to Norfolk,” he said.

“I started a law degree at the University of East Anglia but decided I wasn’t mature enough to make a good go of it, so my focus changed radically.

“I used to work on the events crew at the UEA and run the security barriers at the front of gigs. I developed a very particular skill of being able to squirt water from a bottle into the mouths of audience members to ensure everyone was well hydrated during particularly hot and sweaty gigs.

“When I dropped out of the law degree I happened upon a flyer in the Lower Common Room (LCR) that mentioned working in Africa. I investigated it, did some fundraising, trained in Denmark, and then spent nine months in Malawi.

“I met some really nice people there; we built a school and I wrote a business studies curriculum.

“I travelled back to Malawi with a friend from Sweden and in the British Consulate in Malawi we found a prospectus about a development studies degree back at the UEA, so I decided to apply.

“It was a phenomenal course that took me to Kathmandu in Nepal for nine months in my final year. I followed it up with a master’s in politics and development and graduated in 2004.

“I then moved around a bit, taught in Spain and Denmark and eventually got a job in Nigeria running some higher education-based projects. I then went back to the UEA again for a PGCE in geography. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to be a teacher at the end of it!”

Stuart became friends with the owner of RenEnergy, based to the east of Norwich, and worked there for four years as operations manager installing underfloor heating systems, heat pumps and working on barn conversions.

“I have had several careers, but my time in Malawi and Nepal I hold dear from a personal perspective. There were also times working at RenEnergy where I would be standing up to my waste in mud at 7pm on a summer’s evening in rural Norfolk, breathing in the fresh air and thinking to myself ‘this isn’t so bad!’. I really enjoyed that on a physical and mental level.”

With a daughter of seven and a son who’s almost two, weekends in the Thornton house in rural Norfolk are spent “tidying up”, enjoying their outdoor garden space, and frequent trips to the farm shop and beach.

“We’ve also got an annoying Norfolk terrier, who only barks at me, and four cats. All are rescues and rehomes.

“I’ve turned my garage into a workshop. Living in the countryside, everyone’s hobby is chopping wood.

“I like to make things and grow things. If something needs to be made, I’ll make it. I’ve completely gutted pretty much every room in our house and a lot of the furniture has my thumbprint on it somewhere.”

Another passion is motorbikes. “I’ve got a BMW and a Triumph from 1967, which always needs mending,” said Stuart. “I inherited it from my dad and it’s been in the family longer than I have.

“When he became ill and died, we were in the process of rebuilding it. It was all in boxes, so I re-built it and I’ve been riding it around ever since. I always need a project going on in the background.

“I’m a think-do-think person. I find the way I get a good night’s sleep is to set an agenda in my mind of things I need to think about and problems I need to solve. I will fall asleep and wake up with more insight than I went to sleep with.

“I’m not just cruising through life, if I have a plan and I’m not quite where I need to be, it makes me work harder.”