Friday, 26 February 2010

Offshore wind bringing green growth to UK?

Several months ago when a Vestas blade factory on the Isle of Wight closed down, there were howls of protest. Four hundred people lost their jobs and it seemed to show that all the government’s talk of green collar jobs was just hot air. The staff went on strike and occupied the building. Some people were even calling for the nationalisation of the company in order to develop green power.

At the time I cautioned against any such language, arguing that the blades from the closing factory were made for use in the US, and that nationalisations and buy-outs of large foreign owned players like Vestas would be highly counterproductive, to put it mildly (if not illegal!). A better strategy would be for the government to invest in research and development, and building up the market for offshore wind.

Well it is always nice to have someone follow your advice, even if it was obvious and they never heard it! Since the closure of the Vestas plant, the issue of green jobs has taken a higher priority (and we have the strikers in part to thank for that). At the same time the government has given the go ahead to two important pieces of legislation – the licensing of over 25 GW of round three offshore wind sites (on top of the 9 GW or so already licensed and under development) and the introduction of a Feed in Tariff for small wind.

Already these moves seem to be having an effect. Late last year Clipper Wind Power confirmed that the would be continuing with the development of the Britannia Project, a prototype 10 MW offshore wind turbine and its accompanying blades which will be built at a factory in the North East of England (as an aside, what is it with Clipper’s patriotic names. The American one is called the Liberty, the UK one the Britannia! Is this cunning lobbying?). Soon afterward a company in Wales announced it was setting up a factory to build large turbine towers, while back in the North East a cabling company has announced a major expansion to supply offshore wind.

By far the best news came just this week however, when Mitsubshi signed an MOU for the investment of £100 million in a research and development facility in the North East, building turbines and blades for the offshore wind market. At the same time the government provided grants for the expansion of the blade test bed and offshore wind prototype facilities at the New and Renewable Energy Centre nearby in Blyth.

Okay, the reason that these moves are so exciting is precisely because the UK is starting from a low base in the wind business, and even now the investment is relatively small. In Germany, Spain or Denmark these developments would be minor news. The UK is, in effect, fifteen years behind. Having said that, the fact that such a large expansion of offshore wind is now planned means that there is real potential to build a world class, low carbon industry, and every little step along that route is to be encouraged.


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