Chance now to be offshore capital -- Opportunity knocks for Britain

Back in the 1960s, the discovery of vast fields of oil underneath the North Sea led to the city of Aberdeen in Scotland becoming a capital of the offshore oil industry. The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) is now asking the international wind industry to make up its mind about which UK location is to be the "Aberdeen" of the offshore wind industry.

Offshore wind provides an opportunity to attract wind turbine manufacture and other industries to the UK and boost jobs in the country, provided the incentives and conditions are right, says BWEA. A study by Bain & Company for the association finds that up to 57,000 jobs could be created in wind. This assumes strong political support and requires that the UK becomes the global centre of expertise in offshore development, with offshore turbines and components manufactured within Britain leading to significant exports of equipment and know-how.

It is a best case scenario, however, and assumes the UK follows the successful examples of Germany, Spain and Denmark, where, says the report, governments encouraged turbine manufacturers through strong support systems, new grid infrastructure and fast planning consent for the sites. Manufacturing clusters then developed near the wind turbine factories, consisting of material and component suppliers, plus institutions that provided research and development support. Today, the three main wind industry clusters in northern Germany, Spain and western Denmark account for more than 50% of employment in the EU's wind energy business, the report points out.

Despite being a wind technology leader in the 1970s, the UK missed the boat during the early phases of onshore wind development, but is well placed to benefit from investments flowing into the emerging offshore sector, states the report. Over the next decade, Britain is set to make up 50% of the European offshore wind market.

Cluster approach

The BWEA sees the clustering approach as key to creating a viable offshore wind manufacturing sector. The association's Gordon Edge says incentives are needed to bring offshore manufacturers into the UK to set up shop. This would attract British component suppliers to establish manufacturing facilities nearby. "We need to focus on bringing people to one place to create a virtuous circle," he says. The chosen region would be to the offshore wind industry what Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland is to the oil and gas sector.

"But we need to make a strategic decision soon which place is to become the Aberdeen of the wind industry," says Edge. With most offshore wind development taking place along the North Sea coast, the likely location would be on the eastern side of England. A front runner is north-east England, he says. It has offshore engineering experience from the oil and gas sectors and has research and development facilities at the New and Renewable Energy Centre, with educational establishments such as the University of Durham nearby. Already the area has attracted American wind turbine maker Clipper Windpower to develop its offshore wind turbine in the north-east. "We have got a nascent cluster there, but other areas have claims as well," says Edge.

According to BWEA CEO Maria McCaffery, the government is already in direct dialogue with some major turbine manufacturers, "but they are understandably cautious." The British market still poses challenges for the wind sector, she comments, pointing out that some 50% of the wind capacity that entered the planning system in 2002 is still there today, awaiting a decision. The industry needs a clarion signal from government that barriers to wind deployment such as planning and grid will be dealt with, she says.

Skills critical

The Bain & Company study also finds that the current worldwide shortage of wind industry skills will become more critical over time. From 2015 it will be the third most serious obstacle to the industry's growth. Depending on the sector's rate of expansion, between 18,000 and 52,000 new jobs will be created. But already companies are having problems finding staff -- in particular project managers, electrical engineers and turbine technicians. "It's difficult finding people with the right skills," comments Edge. This is still a young industry and there are not enough educational institutions turning out graduates with the qualifications the wind sector needs, he adds.