Wind in the sails of the UK offshore industry

The Engineer

When Danish wind energy firm Vestas closed its Isle of Wight blade facility last year, the government’s vision of turning the UK into an industrial hub for the offshore wind industry looked to be in tatters.

But with Clipper, Mitsubishi, GE and Siemens all recently announcing plans to build turbine manufacturing facilities in the UK, there’s now some real momentum behind Britain’s offshore wind sector. And as our big story Offshore giants: the rise of the towering turbine demonstrates, the UK is also spearheading some of the most ambitious projects in the industry.

Currently under development at Clipper Wind Power’s facility in Blyth, Northumberland, the 10MW Britannia turbine will, when complete, be the largest wind turbine in the world. Expected to be up and running by 2012, the 100m high structure will dwarf existing offshore turbines, and its 70m long blades could generate enough power for 10,000 homes.

There’s a misconception that the wind power industry is awash with subsidies. It isn’t.

The rationale is compelling. As turbines grow in size, the cost per watt of generated power falls. Find solutions to the technical problems thrown up by such large structures and you’re on to a winner. So far, just one of these mega-turbines has been ordered by the Crown Estate but our European neighbours are watching and many believe that giant offshore turbines could be the shape of things to come.

Gratifyingly, reports suggesting that the project could be scuppered by government cuts are wide of the mark. There’s a misconception that the wind power industry is awash with subsidies. It isn’t. Most developments are financed by the companies themselves and any cuts are unlikely to impact projects currently being rolled out. But there is a caveat. While industry will happily pay its own R&D costs, for the sector to flourish government investment is required in the infrastructure needed to support a fully fledged manufacturing industry.

It’s therefore important that the £60m ports competition – a Labour initiative designed to do just this – doesn’t become a casualty of spending cuts. The aim of the competition, which will see UK ports bid for money, is to rejuvenate a port that could be strategically important for the development of the offshore wind industry. Our existing infrastructure simply isn’t set up to support a turbine manufacturing industry. One of the reasons onshore turbines aren’t any bigger is that they couldn’t be transported on the roads and if the future of offshore wind truly is giant turbines such logistical issues will become even more critical.

What’s more, it seems that the scheme was one of the reasons Siemens and GE chose to build plants in the UK. Indeed, Siemens has stated that it will wait to see the outcome of the ports competition before going ahead with its plans.

The Engineer has long argued that the UK has the expertise, geography and international recognition to be a world leader in offshore wind. The government must recognise that a steady level of investment in infrastructure now will attract manufacturing, create jobs and potentially reap huge rewards in the future.