The ripples of excitement that spread through Norfolk, following January’s announcement of the Round 3 offshore windfarm licensing, are understandable.
After all, the 7.2 gigawatt (GW) project announced at the Norfolk Bank zone will generate more than 80 times the power of the farm at Scroby Sands off Great Yarmouth, which has whirled away since 2004.
Norfolk Bank, to be operated as East Anglia Offshore Wind and owned equally by Scottish Power Renewables and Vattenfall Vindkraft, is one of nine sites, producing more than 25GW, which the government hopes will ultimately create 45,000 UK-based jobs.
But this figure assumes that two-thirds of the manufacture of wind turbines takes place 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: we can’t attract manufacturing to the UK because there’s no supply chain, and we 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 so crucial.
They are actively putting together a platform for companies that have transferable skills to enable them to promote their capabilities to the turbine industry.
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; and Yarmouth-based Seajacks and Gardline, harsh environment installation platform manufacturers and marine engineers respectively.
The group’s aim is that, within three years, a test turbine can be constructed, comprising component parts manufactured by local companies.
Once the project is complete, the UK will be able to demonstrate that it has a capable supply chain, which hugely increases the potential to attract or create an OEM wind turbine in the country for future development rounds.
But there are still five years before construction of the Round 3 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.
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.
Importantly for Norfolk, two of the other eight Round 3 sites are also in the North Sea, at Dogger Bank and Hornsea, providing significant opportunities for the existing supply chain in the county, and in Suffolk.
The fact that EEEGR is calling it the Sea of Opportunity is not just a marketing ploy – 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.
Twin ports at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are perfectly placed to act as hubs, attracting 4,000 new jobs in local industries which are used to dealing with the harsh elements of the North Sea.
Indeed, 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 nine sites.
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.
It will also benefit some of EEEGR’s less obvious members, such as the Holiday Inn – people need somewhere to stay when they fly into Norwich Airport. There are many specialist ancillary services in the area without which you cannot operate.
It’s 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.
The Crown Estate’s supply chain event in March will help firms understand what the purchasing specifications are and how they can get involved.
Now is the time to grasp the nettle – otherwise, when do you ever start? We are not going to get two chances at this, and we have the opportunity right on our doorstep to make our proven world class expertise tell.
John Best is energy lead for the World Class Norfolk campaign and chief executive of the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR).