In March, the UK government announced the first sector deal for renewable energy, to nearly quadruple offshore wind capacity from 7.9 GW to at least 30 GW by 2030, generating nearly a third of UK energy, creating tens of thousands of jobs.
The deal will help renewable-energy firms to invest up to £48 billion in offshore wind over the next decade. It aims to ramp up UK exports post-Brexit, aiming for a fivefold increase to £2.6 billion by 2030.
The UK leads the world in offshore wind production, exporting its expertise to 22 countries. The offshore wind industry has already pledged up to £250 million for the UK supply chain, including £100 million in the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership.
Nowhere are hopes higher than on the Humber, gateway to more than 80 per cent of North Sea windfarms and to more than half Europe’s offshore wind projects, as Humber Local Energy Partnership (LEP) finalises its clean-energy strategy.
In a region that imports a third of UK coal and a fifth of its gas, this aims to reposition the Humber as a test-bed for new technologies that help all of us to live cleaner, greener lives.
As he walks the marble corridors of the Guildhall, Hull City Council director of regeneration Mark Jones is reminded daily how much the Humber economy owes to the sea. The walls are lined with maritime memorabilia, ships’ plaques naming merchant ships from bygone times.
If things are “hectic” now, down on Alexandra Dock, assembling and shipping turbines to Hornsea One windfarm, that corner of the port closed then reopened to low-value cargoes, before the Green Port Hull project “reinvented it”.
During the 2008 financial crash, Hull was haemorrhaging a thousand jobs a month. With shipping and insurance in the doldrums, Hull turned to renewables, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, rebranding Alexandra Dock as Green Port Hull, an enterprise zone for offshore wind.
In 2011, terminal owner Associated British Ports (ABP) offered a 30-year lease to Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (SGRE), which invested £160 million in a factory producing rotor blades and managing offshore wind project construction, assembly and services. ABP put up £150 million. Today, SGRE Hull employs 1,100 people.
Hull is assembling and delivering 190 turbines to Hornsea One, and 167 turbines to Hornsea Two, the Ørsted-owned project that is the biggest windfarm in Europe. Hornsea One started production in February.
Turbines are trucked into the Port of Hull, two a night, for assembly and shipment. ABP Humber has added 18 acres of storage space and built a road through the roundabout to help the outsized units through the port gates. Fitted dockside with Siemens SGRE blades, the turbines sail straight out to the North Sea.
It’s a business Hull plans to grow, creating new jobs in mechanical and electrical engineering and in marine surveys.
With Brexit in disarray, the sector deal provides more “long-term certainty”, Jones says, helping the region to improve its skills base and attract inward investment. It positions local manufacturers to reposition themselves to seize opportunities in offshore wind and could draw new components suppliers in.
“The sector deal is brilliant news for the Humber LEP,” Jones says. “Hull used to fight Grimsby for fish. Now, the ports play a complementary role. Hull is a manufacturing base for the offshore wind industry and Grimsby is the UK’s largest OEM base.
“The Humber region has the UK’s most coherent offshore wind cluster. Hull University is home to Project Aura, our dream ticket when we launched Green Port Hull. Aura improves our skills offering, helping us to overcome the impact on the local labour force of a manufacturer like Siemens moving in.”
Dirty old towns
With its ageing steelworks and two oil refineries, the Humber region emits more carbon than any other part of the UK. The bigger story is how the sector deal supports Humber LEP’s industrial strategy and transition to a low-carbon economy.
The four local authorities’ Energy Estuary Strategy focuses on energy cost, security and climate change. Business priorities, post-Brexit, will be currency security and energy cost, says Jones. “In the transition to a low-carbon economy, lots of small things can add up to a big difference. We’ve seen a change in mindset, that this is how we do things now.”
Energy Estuary partner ABP Humber is working to mitigate the maritime industry’s sizeable emissions at the ports of Hull, Immingham, Goole and Grimsby. That means talking to shipping companies about their future fuel strategy, says ABP Humber energy manager Sam Walton.
It also means replacing ageing diesel-powered port equipment with greener models and investing landside in renewables.
Solar panels generate 1.1 MW at the port of Goole, which runs off-grid during peak demand. ABP plans more solar and onshore wind power across its Humber land holdings.
Meanwhile, Humber LEP has applied to redevelop Hull’s former airfield as Yorkshire Energy Park, to support more sustainable gas generation and smarter management of the local energy grid. “Gas will be with us for quite some time, for generating,” Jones says.
“We will achieve so much more as the UK rolls out battery storage – we’ll see more industrial-scale solar power. We are looking at how to introduce hydrogen into the mix. That’s something we want to develop on a regional level – but it’s early days.”
Walton agrees. Hydrogen is coming up more often, now, when she talks to shipping lines about alternative fuels. Surplus wind power can be converted and stored as cheap, renewable hydrogen. “As a port company, we are very interested in hydrogen’s potential as shipping fuel,” Walton says. “But we’re still trying to work out what pathway would fit – that’s where Aura comes in.”
Hull University and its academic and industry partners established Aura three years ago, to develop new offshore wind and low-carbon technologies. Aura director Ben George sees the sector deal as “an important first step” towards the low-carbon transition, but with a caveat.
“If we are serious about decarbonising the UK, we need significantly more electricity for industry and transport to make that transition, which implies that we will need to produce a lot more green energy,” he says.
Regulation and capital investment are not the main barriers to ramping up offshore wind, George says; it’s a problem of environmental restrictions and of mindset. “We need a better understanding of the circular economy, and how offshore windfarms can support that circularity.”
That includes switching from centralised to decentralised energy production, and could include green hydrogen from surplus wind power. The question is where and how to produce and store this, and for what purposes, which will help to shape how the Humber scales up its renewable technologies.
“We want the Humber region to lead by example in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” George concludes. “This region has the most to play for, with our industries emitting so much carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas. We need to decarbonise.
“This region mixes agricultural, industrial and urban environments and is a hub for different modes of transport. We see the perfect opportunity, here, to move the dial in the transition to a low-carbon – and eventually a zero-carbon – economy, to benefit energy, health, education and the environment.
“This could deliver fundamental change.”
Offshore wind in figures
7,899 MW UK current capacity
6.2% of UK power needs, 2017
10% of UK power needs, 2020
37 UK offshore wind farms
5.8 MW average turbine size
7,200 direct jobs
£18 billion investment, 2017-2021
9.6 mt in reduced carbon emissions, 2017
3 new farms under construction
20 new farms in permitting
13 new sites proposed
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