Offshore and out of mind - but are winds of change ahead?

The Scroby Sands Wind Farm off Great Yarmouth beach where E.ON and the RSPB are working together to

Are wind farms the future for Norfolk? - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

The wind farm industry has a huge role in the future of this region, yet it often seems strangely remote from the community. DAN GRIMMER considers how that is about to change.

Take a stroll through the centre of Newcastle and you will find yourself amid some of the grandest and most handsome 19th century buildings found anywhere in the world.

This remarkable urban landscape is a reminder of the role the north east region played during the age of coal.

Those imposing buildings were built using the fortunes generated by the ‘black gold’ which workers toiled to mine from beneath the soil of the surrounding area.

That fuel was used to power Britain and build an empire, and made the north east one of the most important places in the country.

That era of energy has now passed and we are entering a new one, an age of renewables.

And where Newcastle was at the centre of the coal age, now Norfolk - or, more specifically the waters off its coast - is at the forefront of the latest energy revolution. 

Wind farm

Vattenfall is awaiting decisions on its Vanguard and Boreas wind farms. - Credit: Rasmus Kortegaard Photograph y

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The turbines spinning in increasing numbers in the North Sea, off our beautiful coastline, are going to power millions of homes and, we must hope, help avert a catastrophe caused by climate change.

But will they leave a more direct legacy for Norfolk? Will some of the wealth that the industry will also generate  - alongside energy - be invested here?

In 100 years time, will the county display evidence of its central role, as those grand old buildings bear testimony to Newcastle’s in an earlier energy age?

It’s an interesting issue to consider this week, after Vattenfall, the energy company which wants to construct the vast Boreas and Vanguard wind farms off our shores, announced a £15m community fund.

It’s a sizeable sum of money, and could pay for many worthwhile projects across the county - be that a much-needed increase in electric vehicle charging points or transformations to make village halls more environmentally friendly.

But it highlights a difference between the Geordie coal barons of the 19th century and the Norfolk turbine tycoons of today.

While the mine owners were local - spending their money in their own backyard, even if they were spending it on themselves - most of the wind sector are not from this region.

Many are foreign. Vattenfall are Swedish. Ørsted, behind the Hornsea offshore farms, are Danish.

Wind farm

Vattenfall is among the companies which wants to build wind farms off the coast of Norfolk. - Credit: Kate Drouet

The East Anglia ONE offshore wind farm, some 26 miles off the Suffolk coast, is operated by ScottishPower Renewables - part of the Spanish Iberdrola group. These are obscure names that will hardly top any list of the region's most cherished firms.

It may be that these foreign roots, and the very nature of the wind farms - most of us will get no nearer to them than standing on the beach at Great Yarmouth - that creates a sense of distance between the sector and the region it is so vital to. It is hard to say that this is an industry that Norfolk has taken to its heart.

Indeed, for some in the region the relationship is downright hostile - and no wonder.

Through a coastal haze, wind farms may look like slightly alien, but generally peaceful, sentinels, whirring away out at sea.

Yet the gigawatts of power which those monolithic machines generate does not magically transfer from the turbines to the National Grid.

It has to travel. And to do that it has to cross the Norfolk countryside via cables.

Those cables need to be in trenches. And to create trenches countryside has to be dug up, with all the disruption to individuals and communities that entails.

And it will not just be a few communities close to the coast affected by this. To connect up to the National Grid, these cables will come far inland, to villages such as Necton and Swardeston.

Substations will be needed - and communities are understandably concerned.

A legal challenge by former RAF pilot Raymond Pearce, concerned about the impact of cables close to his Reepham home, has already quashed a previous decision to allow one of Vattenfall's projects.

The next few weeks and months will determine whether that consent is given and Mr Pearce has already expressed his cynicism at the timing of Vattenfall's announcement over that £15m community fund.

Mr Pearce won round one of what he described as a David and Goliath battle. But, would you really bet against a plot twist which reveals that the slingshot, rather than killing the giant, merely left him reeling for a while before he recovered his poise?

It seems inevitable that the wind farm sector is here to stay. So what should Norfolk make of it?

The region has reaped the dividends of the energy industry before.

Oil and gas fields in the North Sea brought employment on the rigs, with the connections to Yarmouth a welcome fillip for the town through some difficult times.

More recently, Yarmouth and Lowestoft have been positioning themselves to benefit from the burgeoning renewable energy industry.

Yarmouth's port has become an operations and construction base - it has become a common site to see huge blades being readied for transport to huge wind farms.

The potential benefits for the county have not gone unnoticed in the corridors of power.

There is a belief that Norfolk can be a hotbed for the offshore industry - with such projects estimated to be worth more than £39bn over the next two decades

On the southern tip of Yarmouth's South Denes peninsula, the aspiration to harness the economic benefits of wind farms is made clear.

Buildings which have stood there for years, have gone. Pulled down, so Norfolk County Council can spend £18m to construct an Operations and Maintenance Campus to serve the offshore industries.

The goal is to ensure the jobs and money from the renewables sector stay here and do not disappear to other parts of the country.

Energy generation presents rich opportunities for Norfolk and Suffolk-based companies to offer skills, services and products in support or as part of the supply chain.

Wind farm energy is going to be such a major part of our region and many say we need to accept and embrace it. 

Yes, there are concerns. His successful legal challenge demonstrates that people like Raymond Pearce are absolutely right to question the processes.

MPs such as George Freeman, Duncan Baker and Jerome Mayhew have also, correctly, raised concerns over the lack of co-ordination between wind companies when it comes to those cables.

They have called for the electricity generated by the wind farms to be connected to the National Grid at the coast, rather than inland - though an offshore ring main.

The wind farm companies say the technology for that to be possible is still some years off.

That is unfortunate, as it that would have meant fewer cables and less disruption for communities.

That might have meant Norfolk may have afforded a warmer welcome to its latest wave of Scandinavian would-be settlers.

But these are still early days in the age of renewable energy. It remains a remote sector, but Vattenfall's £15m gesture must be taken in good faith, and as a sign of a relationship between industry and the community that can only improve.

We must wait to see how things play out. But the hope must be that the wind sector can leave Norfolk a legacy that is even greater than those grand old buildings that line Newcastle's streets.

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