John Best, CEO of the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) and energy lead for the World Class Norfolk campaign, says the ripples of excitement which spread through the county following January’s Round 3 offshore wind announcement are understandable.
Among the new offshore wind farms will be the East Anglian Array, which will comprise about 1000 wind turbines roughly 15 miles offshore from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, owned equally by Scottish Power Renewables and Vattenfall Vindkraft.
The 7.2 GW offshore wind project will generate more than 80 times the power of the existing farm at Scroby Sands off Great Yarmouth, which has whirled away since 2004.
The Government hopes that Round 3’s 9 sites will ultimately create 45,000 UK-based jobs and, importantly for Norfolk, two of the other sites are also in the North Sea - at Dogger Bank and Hornsea, providing significant opportunities for the existing supply chain in the county.
“The region can become a hub for renewable energy excellence in the same way that the supply chain continues to serve the existing gas industry,” says Best.
“Twin ports at Yarmouth and Lowestoft are perfectly placed to act as hubs, attracting 4000 new jobs in local industries which are used to dealing with the harsh elements of the North Sea. We’re calling it the Sea of Opportunity – and that’s not just a marketing ploy.”
Best believes it is vitally important that the region speaks with “one compelling voice”, as Aberdeen did with the North Sea oil industry, to promote a balanced, long-term lower carbon agenda comprising both offshore wind alongside the existing gas fields.
“We have to ensure that our capacity and capability are fit for purpose for the new market, and training providers and colleges are already getting together to put the skills foundations in place,” he adds.
Great Yarmouth-based Gardline Marine Sciences has already secured a contract to conduct surveys of seabirds as part of the early stages of developing the Dogger Bank zone – and hopes to win similar contracts for all 9 offshore wind farm sites.
The company has 40 years’ experience in the North Sea oil and gas industry, and has worked for the past decade in the nascent offshore renewables sector.
John Morse, Business Development Manager of Gardline’s renewables division, said its expertise in geotechnical and hydrographical investigation work in deep waters should stand it in good stead when it bids for further Round 3 offshore wind work.
“We’re very interested in looking at opportunities for us to offer our various services to potential Round 3 operators, and our survey vessels are capable of dealing with all aspects of the offshore wind farm industry,” he adds.
Vessels range from smaller near-shore boats up to a 90 m geotechnical survey boat which can make test boreholes, take shallow soils data and assess the strength of the sea bed.
Technical expertise needed
Meanwhile, Gorleston-based engineering firm 3Sun have announced up to 40 new jobs, half of which are to cope with growing demand from the green energy sector.
The company will look to treble its workforce as it takes on new work in the construction of offshore wind-farms.
The firm is a specialist in precision instrumentation and control systems and has built its reputation working in the oil and gas industries both in the North Sea and overseas, including Angola and the Ivory Coast.
Director Graham Hacon says the wind opportunities brought their own unique challenge because of the need for many lower level multi-disciplined technicians, who need four to five weeks of specialist turbine safety training.
"With many projects due to start in May of this year, things are very hectic as we push forward in developing this new breed of technicians," he adds.
"The energy industry locally is faced with the unique challenge of seizing the opportunities derived from the plethora of ongoing and planned gas and wind turbine developments and re-establishing itself as a global centre of energy excellence.
"We are committed to filling our ongoing vacancies locally to further develop the indigenous offering and would urge other employers to do the same to truly develop the regional offering."
In addition, companies like precision engineers Warren Services, based at Thetford, stand to benefit from wind turbine maintenance, while Norwich-based Petans have a distinguished history in offshore survival and maritime training.
There are also benefits for some of EEEGR’s less obvious members, such as the Holiday Inn, where people can stay when they fly into Norwich Airport.
Behind on manufacturing
But, when it comes to offshore wind manufacturing, the UK is behind the game. There has been much talk of how realistic that 45,000 UK jobs estimate is, especially as it assumes that two thirds of the manufacturing is done in the UK.
At the moment, not a single component for wind turbines is manufactured in this country, and any new turbines will come from Europe, or even China.
It is a classic chicken and egg situation: the UK can’t attract manufacturing because there’s no supply chain, and it can’t establish a supply chain because there’s no manufacturer to work with.
This is why the work being undertaken by the Eastern Wind Energy Group (EWEG) at the advanced engineering hub at Hethel – just around the corner from Lotus Engineering – is considered crucial in Norfolk.
The group is actively putting together a platform for companies that have transferable skills to enable them to promote their capabilities to the turbine industry.
Peter Wortley, Project Director of EWEG, says automotive, marine and aerospace companies can all make components for the wind sector.
Companies like King’s Lynn-based Cooper Roller Bearings, whose bearings are already used in the marine industry on vessels from super tankers to hydrofoils; or PPI Engineering, which provides rotating machinery across the world.
“Our aim is that, within three years, a test turbine can be constructed, comprising component parts manufactured by local companies,” adds Wortley.
“Once the project is complete, we will be able to demonstrate that we have a capable supply chain, which hugely increases the potential to attract or create an OEM wind turbine in the country for future development rounds.”
There are still five years before construction of the Round 3 offshore wind projects, and the group is still aiming to get manufacture up and running towards the end of this round.
“Without this manufacturing base, there is no doubt that the number of jobs for the region will be significantly less than we would hope – there would still be benefits, but the employment would be more transient,” says Wortley.
“On the flipside, an established manufacturing industry would enable us to export our expertise around the world for the undoubted huge demand there will be for this step-change in energy policy.”