The start of the wind of change

Features editor

As Vince Cable and his fellow ministers launch a ‘manufacturing summit’ as part of the government’s much-trumpeted attempt to rebalance the economy, some welcome news comes with Siemens’ announcement of an offshore wind turbine plant in Hull.

A depressed region since the decline of the fishing and shipbuilding industries, the Northeast will welcome the arrival of a new industrial sector. Renewables are a vital part of another long-heralded shift, taking power generation away from its near-total dependence on fossil fuels and towards a more diverse future with lower-carbon generation.

The Hull plant will be a pioneer in technology as well. Based at the town’s Alexandra Dock, it will be the first plant to produce 6MW wind turbines — twice the capacity of the current largest turbines and, when complete, towering 150m above the sea. Hull City Council believes Siemens will bring 10,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, to the town. Such a large, modern plant will also play a role in bringing the cost of turbines down and reducing the energy needed to build them: both important factors in reducing the payback time and increasing the ‘carbon positivity’ of the turbines.

It’ll also increase the UK’s skills base in offshore renewables, which will, hopefully, be of benefit to marine power, an area in which the UK is also blessed. We’re among the windiest nations in Europe, with the huge swells of the Atlantic Ocean on the Western side, the enormous tidal ranges where the ocean meets the North Sea to the north, and the great potential of the Severn Estuary; it would be folly not to investigate and develop the technologies that could exploit these resources. As we’ve said before, many times, no single energy generation source will be able to meet the UK’s demands in the coming decades, and nuclear, wind, tide and wave will have to take their place alongside more efficient fossil fuel generation.

One thing that the Siemens plant doesn’t achieve, however, is an increase in home-grown IP. The company is a multinational — as is GE, which is also planning an offshore turbine plant in the UK — and its technology is brought in, rather than home-developed. The great advantage of developing your own technology and bringing it to the market is that the supply chain is developed alongside and a new sector carved out, bringing even more benefits in terms of skills and business.

This, with luck and a good tide, is what’s happening in the marine energy sector, with a whole raft of new technologies under test. And it could happen in offshore wind as well. Project Nova, a collaboration between Cranfield, Sheffield and Strathclyde Universities, Qinetiq and the Energy Technologies Institute, is designing a V-shaped vertical-axis turbine which could change the face of offshore wind power and put the UK back in the forefront of wind generation — a position it sadly lost, partly owing to government scepticism and lack of support, in the 1980s. As the project reaches the testing stage, we can only hope that Vince Cable’s prodding of the financial sector to release more money to business bears fruit, and Nova can find the funding necessary to build their own plant. Hull came to prominence with the wind filling the sails of its fishing boats: maybe the wind can blow it, and the UK, even more good fortune.