Wind sector says mind the gap on skills and capacity

The British Wind Energy Association has warned that the UK could miss out on the economic benefits of a massive boost in wind energy unless domestic manufacturing rises.

The government should encourage the creation of business clusters to boost manufacturing and skills for the UK wind industry, according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).

Serious shortages in both these areas will mean that the UK will fail to benefit from the massive expansion of on and offshore wind over the next few years and make wind farms more expensive to develop, the BWEA believes.

The BWEA was expecting the milestone of three gigawatts (GW) of installed wind energy capacity to be reached in October, just 20 months after the second GW was achieved. One GW, or 1,000 megawatts, is the capacity of one large conventional power station, although the actual output of wind farms is equivalent to about one quarter of their capacity because winds are intermittent.

It expects the fourth GW to be commissioned by summer 2009, and the fifth in spring 2010. This means that by 2010, three gigawatts of capacity will need to be built.

"We are not sure the supply chain is up to this," BWEA director of programme strategy Chris Tomlinson said. Two recent government-commissioned reports have cast serious doubt on the UK’s ability to meet its 2020 renewables target due to the lack of a supply chain ( ENDS Report 403, pp 13-14 ).

There are only about 5,000 people employed in the wind industry in the UK. A study by consultants Bain and Company found that measures proposed in the government’s renewable energy strategy would see up to 36,000 jobs created in the sector and 27GW of wind energy installed.1 This is just below the 28GW the government estimates we need to meet the EU renewable energy target.

However, potential for jobs is significantly higher, the study found. Up to 57,000 people could be employed in the sector in the UK by 2020. This would result in 34MW of wind energy installed, which is much higher than what is needed to meet the European target of 15% of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

But this would rely on stronger political support for wind energy, recognition of the UK as the global centre of expertise in offshore development, and manufacturing clusters that allow the UK to become self-supplying and a significant exporter of both knowledge and components, the consultants said.

A worst-case scenario, where political support for wind energy declines, would see only 23,000 jobs created by 2020 and only 22GW of wind power installed, the consultants added. They highlight that the UK is ideally placed to benefit from the massive expansion of offshore wind in the next decade. Only 1% of the 100GW of wind installed worldwide is now offshore. But by 2020, half the 40GW of installed offshore wind energy is expected to be around the UK.

However, there is no manufacturing base for offshore wind in the UK. Danish manufacturer Vestas has a plant on the Isle of Wight, where it makes turbines for export to the US, though it has recently announced that it will sell them to the UK market instead (ENDS Report 404, p 12 ). US-based Clipper is working on a prototype 7.5MW turbine for the UK market, but this will not be developed for at least three to four years.

"Other countries will benefit from our renewable energy target. They’ll be laughing all the way to the bank," said BWEA director of economics and markets Gordon Edge. The UK has just five years to gear up jobs and manufacturing in order to exploit the benefits of the third round of offshore wind farms, he said.

North-east England is widely seen as the best location for a business cluster for the offshore wind industry due to its existing energy expertise, location and large population. The New and Renewable Energy Centre turbine test centre is already in operation at Blyth, Northumberland.

Andy Williamson, senior specialist in renewable energy at the North East regional development agency One NorthEast, said his organisation was in talks with "more than half a dozen" manufacturers about locating in its renewable energy park at Walker Riverside in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. "The size of the prize for offshore wind is nowhere as big as in the UK," he added.

Meanwhile, an offshore renewables business centre opened in Lowestoft, Suffolk in November. Orbis Energy will house and support firms involved in developing alternative fuels and energy

Airtricity, the renewables arm of utilities group Scottish and Southern, will use the centre as its base to construct the Greater Gabbard wind farm. Its investment includes a helipad so engineers can access offshore wind farms by helicopter as well as ships, which are in short supply but it includes no manufacturing capacity.

Steve Clarke, development director for offshore renewable energy at Renewables East - which promotes renewable energy in the East of England - said the area is ideally placed to be a hub for operation and maintenance of offshore wind farms.

The Bain & Co report also stresses the major imbalance in the sector’s labour market that already exists. More than half of firms have vacancy levels of above 5%. Almost half of firms face difficulty hiring project managers, 40% have trouble recruiting electrical engineers and 25% struggle to find turbine technicians.

This is set to worsen as the market expands. The number of engineers graduating each year in the UK is likely to remain flat over the next 12 years, the report states. It recommends developing specialised education programmes tailored for the wind industry.

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