North England looks to the wind to power growth after Brexit
BLYTH, England — A windswept industrial site on the outskirts of this small town in England’s northeast may not look like the future of Britain after Brexit.
And yet, the developers running the project are hoping that that’s exactly what it will be.
Nestled between the North Sea and a working-class neighborhood of weather-worn houses, the site — once home to a now-demolished coal-fired power plant — hopes to tap into one of the few industrial sectors where the United Kingdom still dominates globally: the offshore wind industry.
The rejuvenation project comes as Britain looks to rejigger its economy after last year’s EU referendum, hoping to reduce a reliance on professional services like banking and rekindle the country’s once world-beating manufacturing sector.
“The next 18 months are all about raising awareness of the opportunity that’s around us,” said John Hildreth, head of economic growth at Arch, a private development company owned by Northumberland county council that’s overseeing the project, known as Energy Central.
“We’re only on the first stage of this journey,” he added, pulling his high-visibility jacket around him against a wintry gale. “But we’ve got momentum on our side.”
The U.K. will need such optimism — and multimillion pound investments — as it tries to reduce the country’s dependence on service industries that currently generate almost 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
“The offshore wind industry offers the country the ultimate panacea as a technology” — Ben Warren, head of energy and environmental finance at EY
In contrast, the local manufacturing sector — everything from aerospace and automotive industries to upstart fields like offshore renewable energy — represents just one-tenth of Britain’s annual GDP, down from more than one-quarter in the 1970s.
By early next decade, local developers here plan to turn this 1.6-square-kilometer strip of wasteland into a hub for Britain’s fast-growing offshore energy industry.
That includes building on the northeast of England’s seafaring and ship-building heritage, as well as attracting new investment. Blyth, which lies just north of Newcastle, became home to Britain’s first offshore wind farm almost 20 years ago and has seen companies like EDF Energy Renewables set up shop since then.
As Britain looks to its future outside of the European Union, many in the industry see an opportunity — and exporting potential — in the country’s global expertise in generating electricity from its gusty shoreline.
The U.K.’s prominent role in this burgeoning renewable energy field has been spurred by lucrative government subsidies, regulations offering incentives to companies that have taken turbines out to sea, and cost reductions in technology that have made the price of offshore wind generation roughly on par with traditional fossil fuels like natural gas.
A housing estate in Redcar, in the northeast of England, which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Already, Britain has built enough offshore wind turbines to generate 5.4 gigawatts of electricity — enough to power 4 million homes — more capacity than any other country. A further 3 GW are under construction, and the industry is expected to provide up to 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs by 2020, according to government figures.
The sector currently employs roughly 10,000 people to build, install and service these giant turbines, which stand tens — and soon, hundreds — of kilometers offshore and whose blades can reach up to 90 meters from end to end. The number of jobs, according to research by the University of Hull, is expected to more than double over the next 15 years.
“The offshore wind industry offers the country the ultimate panacea as a technology,” said Ben Warren, head of energy and environmental finance at EY, a consultancy, in London. “It provides the prospect for jobs.”
Britain had a head start in offshore wind, but some fear it won’t necessarily hold on to that advantage as other countries — including China, France and the United States — build up their own industries.
Britain is still the largest market for offshore wind energy, but local companies don’t manufacture any of its own turbines. Siemens, the German industrial giant, now builds its offshore wind blades in Hull, and Denmark’s Ørsted (previously known as Dong Energy) expects to invest £1 billion in local businesses in the northeast by 2019 as part of its North Sea wind projects.
The number of jobs in offshore wind technology is expected to more than double over the next 15 years | William Edwards/AFP via Getty Images
Other European countries, including Germany, Denmark and Belgium, are also expanding their offshore energy industries. That includes commitments to build around 4 GW of new wind projects each year well into next decade, according to a joint declaration by the three countries’ energy ministers earlier this year. Global competitors, including in Asia, have set similarly aggressive goals.
Britain’s limited pool of engineers — as well as under-investment in science education — is a source of concern for industry experts, particularly if the country’s offshore energy sector is to meet its ambitious targets of an additional 20 GW in wind power in the coming decades.
“The rest of the world will learn how to commercialize it,” said Tony Quinn, testing and validation director at the U.K.’s offshore renewable energy research center, a quasi-government agency whose aim is to jumpstart the local industry. “The U.K. needs to find a way to build the products. We’re a country of serial innovators.”
Brexit-land, offshore energy hub
Still, the opportunity offered by the U.K.’s offshore wind industry has been a boon for the northeast — a region that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, but whose unemployment rate remains above the national average and where manufacturing still lies at the heart of many communities.
As more countries turn their attention to offshore wind, industry watchers expect the U.K., with its lengthy track record of bringing such projects online and extensive expertise in the North Sea oil and gas sector, to benefit from exporting such know-how around the globe.
The sector has become central to the region’s growth, including for Blyth’s deep-sea port.
As snow settled across the site on a recent morning, workers scurried between warehouses owned by companies supplying North Sea projects. Port officials are planning to expand the network of quays and other facilities to service the growing number of wind farms that dot the northeast coast from Scotland to Norfolk.
EDF, for instance, recently finished construction of a new array of five turbines located just offshore from Blyth that provides electricity for more than 30,000 households. The foundations for each turbine were built locally and then towed into place by a tugboat before being submerged below the surface of the North Sea — the first time such a technique has been used anywhere in the world. Previously, bases were ferried into place by expensive specialized ships.
“It’ll be great if the northeast can be put on the map for renewable energy” — Peter Greaves, wind turbine researcher
The deep-sea port already supports a couple of thousand of local jobs. And in conjunction with the upcoming Energy Central project (that has received £30 million in government funding and is offering tax breaks and other financial incentives to local companies), officials hope the offshore energy sector can revitalize a town whose seafaring roots include the construction of world’s first aircraft carrier in 1914.
“Blyth has the makings of a global center for excellence,” said Andy Williamson, business development manager at the port of Blyth. “This is a great opportunity to export our offshore wind services to the rest of the world.”
If you build it, they will come
If Blyth — and the wider U.K. economy — is going to take advantage of a potential manufacturing renaissance, much will depend on people like Peter Greaves and a new generation of engineers required to turn offshore wind into an engine of growth.
The 34-year-old first moved to the Northumberland town of less than 40,000 inhabitants over a decade ago. He soon joined the Catapult offshore research center, whose local warehouses, some the size of several soccer fields, are one of the few places worldwide where manufacturers can test the latest wind turbine technologies.
The deep-sea port at Blyth already supports a couple of thousand of local jobs | Marie Heuclin/AFP via Getty Images
After initially working as a mechanical engineer at the site, Greaves was sponsored by the research institute to complete a Ph.D. at a nearby university focused on analyzing how wind turbines could be better tested for offshore use.
Two years ago, he returned to Blyth, and is now using his academic training to find new ways to put 90-meter long turbine blades through their paces, developing insight that is increasingly sought after by manufacturers and suppliers worldwide.
“There’s definitely more work coming in for offshore wind,” said Greaves. “It’ll be great if the northeast can be put on the map for renewable energy.”
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