Wind farm projects bring in billions

LOWESTOFT is well set to reap the benefits of a huge growth in renewable energy, but as new wind farms take shape off our coast, how realistic are the forecasts for jobs and investment? Elaine Maslin reports

According to recently published research by OrbisEnergy in Lowestoft, the estimated value of offshore wind projects planned up to 2020 in the UK was �138bn – 65pc of the project value across all sectors of the energy industry.

Of the offshore wind total, about �23bn worth was in 'close proximity' to the East of England. 'It is a significant opportunity,' said Jonathan Reynolds, who runs business development at the OrbisEnergy centre in Lowestoft.

But scratch beneath the surface and it is far from an easy win.

While onshore wind farms have become a familiar sight for more than a decade and even the pioneering Scroby Sands wind farm is a now a part of the Great Yarmouth seascape, offshore wind is still very much in its infancy.

On a political level, support, like the wind itself, fluctuates. The UK is hailed as being at the forefront of offshore wind power at the same time as being described as a failure and unlikely to meet European Union renewable energy targets by lobby groups.

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The UK government last week agreed carbon emissions reduction targets seen as some of the toughest in the world – halving the 1990 emissions levels by 2023-2027 – but also gave itself a get out clause in case it found itself out of step with the rest of the EU.

Possibly the biggest hill to climb, however, is the maturing of the industry itself. The early days of offshore wind, so-called round one projects, were a steep learning process, according to now more experienced operators, with onshore developers trying their hand in offshore, a very different environment.

Jonathan Smith, spokesman for E.On, the firm behind Scroby Sands, one of the first offshore wind farms in UK waters, said cabling and keeping it buried and protected became a big issue. Access to vessels was also a problem due to lack of availability – and therefore high costs – and few turbine manufacturers meant a limited market, again, increasing costs.

Round two projects, which include the 140 turbine Greater Gabbard wind farm off Suffolk, have been no less difficult.

Power Cluster, an industry partnership, has said many projects have suffered because of major delays and additional cost due to use of 'cheap solutions'.

Announcing its year end results from its US base, Fluor, the main contractor on Greater Gabbard, said it had been hit by pre-tax charges of $343m on the project due to cost overruns.

This was due to the failure of a subcontractor, Subocean, weather-related delays and low wind turbine and subsea cable installation rates.

It is also in a contractual dispute with Scottish and Southern Energy, the lead partner on Greater Gabbard, over the quality of potentially up to 52 of the 140 turbine foundations.

Issues over health and safety for this new industry have also been raised as it is still unclear who is responsible at the various stages of a project and different operators use different methods of installation.

Two people have died while working on the Greater Gabbard project – one when a chain snapped on a tugboat and another was crushed by a turbine blade.

Turbine technology has, however, moved on in the six years since Scroby opened using two megawatt (MW) machines.

Now the industry is using three to five megawatt turbines, which will make E.on's 175 turbine London Array the first wind farm producing the same amount of power as a good sized power station. Huge 20MW turbines are being developed by Danish scientists.

But operators are not complacent. Much larger round three projects, typically further offshore in harsher waters, are looming.

Mr Smith, from E.On, said: 'As wind farms get bigger and further offshore there will be further issues. The whole thing is a learning process.

'Some of the R3 projects are going to be 500 plus turbines many miles offshore. Scroby was relatively easy working conditions close to shore.

'Dogger Bank (off Humberside and not an E.On project) is miles away. There is going to be a whole different way of working.'

Staff will have to be based on floatels or platforms similar to those used in the oil and gas industry for example.

The next question is how will the parts be shipped out? Will bigger vessels be needed or will parts be shuttled out? The logistics need to be worked on, said Blair Ainslie, who runs Seajacks, a firm which operates soon to be three jack-up vessels used for constructing offshore wind farms.

There also needs to be a supply chain in place to support the work, but with a gap between R2 and R3 projects, it is feared the contractors and suppliers needed for 500 plus wind farms will not be ready.

And according to another OrbisEnergy report, on land and sites available for contractors: 'The current market alone may fail to provide all the hard infrastructure (in terms of land and premises) in the locations required to the technical specifications required.'

Further challenges are in operations and maintenance. Operators like E.on and their suppliers, which include Cooper Roller Bearings in King's Lynn, have created and are developing technology, some based on frequency of components, so that operators get an early warning of issues with components so that maintenance work can be scheduled and managed – reducing costs and potential failures which could damage other machinery.

In an industry which could have periods with 50pc down time due to weather, time and cash is easily wasted.

There will also be a need for staff.

Derek Christie from ScottishPower Renewables, a partner in the massive Anglia Array project, says they will be needing 'hundreds' of operations and maintenance staff.

Recruitment firm Cooper Lomaz has predicted there will be a need for 1,000 skilled people by 2016 for operators and suppliers.

But they will be in competition with the oil and gas industry as the planned peak in offshore wind farm work (2015 to 2020) is likely to coincide with the peak in oil and gas decommissioning activity, according to Power Cluster.

All of it relies upon political support – without subsidies, the renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) projects 'would be dead on their feet', said one developer – and massive up front investment.

Offshore wind has one of the highest costs of any energy generating technology currently available on a commercial scale, according to PowerCluster.

For these reasons, most still agree that offshore wind is still a very young or immature industry.

But there have been innovations.

Mr Christie at ScottishPower said firms like theirs are working with others and industry body Renewable UK to share knowledge through an accelerator project.

East Anglia was one of the first areas to use helicopter transfer to get staff on to turbines. It is also home to new firm Scour Prevention Systems, set up to market a product to help reduce chaffing at the foot of turbines.

Yarmouth based CLS Offshore broke records installing turbine generators on the Thanet Offshore wind farm – and maintained safety records.

Despite the region having missed out on the likes of turbine manufacturers Siemens and Vestas launching bases here – both firms have recently committed to factories in Hull and Wales respectively – all is not lost.

Mr Christie, from ScottishPower, says the benefit of the East of England is that 'this area has a great understanding of the industry and great facilities'.

Firms here have expertise in foundations, jackets (the legs) for substations, vessels, cable laying and also accomodation modules.

Despite being still a nascent industry, it is the most advanced of the renewable energy sources available on a commercial scale, say developers.

And the repetitive nature of installing turbines should afford it an ability to find cost savings, PowerCluster said.

Mr Smith from E.On is also positive wind can evolve. 'I'm sure at some point they (offshore wind farms) will stand on their own two feet,' he said.

'People do just view them as cheap and cheerful. But offshore wind is difficult and it is expensive.

'But it is a vital part of the energy mix and wind is the only renewable technology that is advanced. Wave and tidal is where wind was 10 to 15 years ago. A 1MW has not been tested on an industrial scale yet.'