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Britain's Old Industries See Renewable Boost

Across the UK traditional industries are turning their hand to renewable energy, seeing the potential the booming sector offers for the future.

Just over 100 years ago, the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast produced some of the most famous and celebrated ships in the world, including of course the ill-fated Titanic. Now, after decades of decline, they are seeing a quiet renaissance, spurred on by the development of the offshore wind and marine energy industries around the UK.

Recent projects have included completing the steel foundations for 60 Vestas offshore wind turbines, which will be installed at Robin Rigg in Southern Scotland. They have also won the contract to provide “jackets” for an offshore transformer platform – to accompany an 80-turbine wind farm developed by German company Bard Engineering.

In addition, the shipyard is playing an important role in the development of tidal energy, and has constructed the SeaGen turbine, a 1.2-megawatt (MW) tidal generator developed by Marine Current Turbines (MCT) and installed in Strangford Lough.

“The company embarked on a major diversification strategy five years ago and now we have opened up new markets for our services and products,” said David McVeigh, Head of Sales and Marketing in a recent statement.

If the existing projects go well they could be just the start for Harland and Wolff; from Ireland to Germany, tens of thousands of megawatts of offshore wind are planned for construction in the next decade, indicating massive room for expansion.

It is not just Northern Ireland that is seeing a boost from renewable energy industries. All over the UK, traditional industrial cities are seeing the possibilities presented by this sector.

On the North East coast of England, the industrial city of Newcastle Upon-Tyne is looking to position itself as the onshore base for renewable energy projects off the coast.

Chief among the new developments is the Renewable Energy Park, an initiative of Shepherd Offshore, a local marine services company that also runs the nearby Offshore Supply Base. Situated along the banks of the river Tyne on the site of the abandoned Neptune Shipyard and a disused AMEC plant, the initial plan is to create 500 new jobs with a wind turbine manufacturing plant. Shepherd hopes that these developments will be a natural launch pad for the twenty or so wind farms planned for construction in the North Sea, with estimates suggesting as many as 6000 jobs could eventually be created in manufacturing in the Newcastle area alone.

Speaking at the time of the planning application, company Director Charles Shepherd said: “We are very keen on renewable energy and we want the North-East to be the central hub for this industry. If we work hard we can make the Tyne the centre for that.”

Competition will be fierce though, as Newcastle is far from the only area on the East coast to have realised the potential of offshore wind. Farther south at Lowestoft in Norfolk the local development agency is making efforts to capitalise on the planned offshore renewable developments in the Thames Estuary, including the 1000-MW London Array, due to begin operation around 2012. While a large part of the effort has revolved around building facilities to encourage small and medium enterprises, large established players are also getting involved.

At the onset, the local fishing fleets were opposed to offshore wind farms, fearing their livelihoods would be put in jeopardy. Since construction has begun however, many are now fully supportive, gaining profitable employment running maintenance crews and survey teams out to the construction sites.

In Fife, Central Scotland, a company called Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab) has ambitious plans to capitalise on the offshore wind energy boom. Initially founded to provide major fabrications to the oil and gas industry, BiFab quickly recognised the need to diversify its business, and in 2003 it participated in the development of an “energy park” with the local government.

This initiative has already born fruit with BiFab producing turbine support structures for the demonstration phase of the Beatrice Wind Farm in the Moray Firth — a pioneering project to install 5-MW turbines in deep water. Building on this experience, BiFab is now positioning itself to become one of the leading suppliers of support structures for offshore wind turbines in Europe.

In Aberdeen, capital of the North Sea oil industry, this theme continues, with a large cluster of companies originally set up to provide services for the fossil fuel industry using their skills in renewables. More than a dozen companies now offer services ranging from under-sea cabling and specialist software, through to risk assessment and project design.

Large international engineering firms are also moving into renewables. Mutli-disciplinary engineering giant BMT, perhaps more known for its work on naval architecture and defence, is involved in developing wave power technology, and recently completed an environmental impact assessment for a proposed 200 MW offshore wind farm in Hong Kong.

While offshore renewables are getting the lion’s share of the attention in the UK’s former industrial strongholds, biofuels and solar power are also attracting investment. Despite widespread criticism of the environmental credentials of some biofuels technologies, the last few years have seen a boom in production. Key players in the food and agricultural sectors such as British Sugar, DuPont, Cargill and Tescos  (through biodiesel company Greenergy) are active, with British Sugar and DuPont having opened the UK’s first commercial bioethanol plant in 2007.

The UK’s solar sector is underdeveloped (thanks in part to its perception as a cloudy country), but even here traditional industries have found niches. Originally founded to produce bullet-proof glass, Romag has become an important player in Building-Integrated Photovoltaics, supplying panels for some of the most architecturally interesting solar projects in world, including the Eden Project in Cornwall, and BP’s headquarters.

So it is not the interest of traditional industry to engage with renewables that is in question, but the amount of renewable energy business that is available. With the need to cut carbon emissions and invest in renewables ever more pressing, perhaps the message is finally being understood that if we are to change our economies and embark on a new industrial revolution, then those companies that are quickest to respond to this change will be the winners, not the losers.

Alasdair Cameron is a UK-based writer and campaigner on environmental issues, and is a former Assistant Editor of Renewable Energy World magazine. You can read his blog at

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