Hot air and wind, at the Global Offshore Wind jobs fair

The wind industry is all about “jobs,” and most governments want what that magic word can do for voters. We came across several examples this week – firstly with the US introducing the Offshore Wind Jobs and Opportunity Act in order to assist job creation for the offshore wind industry, the second was listening to Charlie Baker, Governor of Massachusetts, who had successfully introduced 800 MW of wind into his state, after a false start ten years earlier and finally the today’s keynote discussion at London’s Global Offshore Wind conference, which has driven jobs into the UK, with a 60% local content promise agreed with suppliers.

Jobs are a magic formula because it is the loss of jobs that have led the resistance to renewables by the fossil fuel industries. In most other industries it would be about Intellectual Property, or having exemplar market leaders in the technology. But the most mentioned word in presentations this week was “supply chain,” code for setting up all that parts of the wind turbine for manufacture on local soil.

Clark McFarlane UK managing director of Siemens Gamesa owned up to being “one of the guys who sat eyeball to eyeball with UK government officials,” when he explained that it could not just expect the North Sea to beckon investment, it would have to be stimulated by Government money. What amount of skin did the UK have to put in the game to get a queue of global players to build factories on their doorsteps? A promise of 30GW offshore seemed about the right number, he said.

He then talked about what his company had been able to do in Hull, while Julian Brown, UK Country Manager at MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, talked about his factory on the Isle of Wight, and Zoe Keeton, Head of Regulation and Energy Policy at Innogy, talked about her industry being the 4th largest employer in the UK already.

It’s a bit like how the Roman empire spread around the globe, conquest, followed by allowing the conquered to become genuine Romans.

Speakers at the conference as diverse as Renewables UK CEO, Hugh McNeal, the Governor of Massachusetts, as we have mentioned, and even the right Honorable Lord Henley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who talked about 30,000 green jobs in the UK, but had to rush for a taxi to get back to the house, to attend a government vote on the UK’s road to net zero.

The Offshore Wind Sector deal, published in March points to even more – to 430,000 jobs in low carbon businesses and their supply chains and 7,200 directly employed in offshore wind.

McNeal talked passionately about the changes that wind has wrought as far afield as Hull and Great Yarmouth, revitalizing almost dead seaside communities with jobs.

The UK genuinely feels that it has made the best of it, and although this conference was supposed to be about the “Global” offshore wind industry, it did spend an unseemly amount of time, backslapping the UK for having done so well out of it.

Perhaps UK “ingenuity” does deserve some credit for the Contracts for Difference approach the government has taken and for the local community being able to help European suppliers put their supply lines in order, and also to begin the process of exporting that UK labor in the form of completed international turbine orders, made on UK soil.

If the challenges are all about regulatory issues and supply chain, it was also about tiny improvements on everything from investor attitudes to engineering, to a rock solid stable policy framework from a willing government.

But as much wind power has been a success in the UK, there remains a long way to go. We need to move from today’s 8.5 GW of offshore wind capacity to more than 30 GW by 2030. A show of hands at the show in answer to “Who thinks we will install 30 GW by that date” showed overwhelmingly that everyone thinks that first step is going to happen, and as much as 75 GW may happen by 2050.

It was interesting to hear Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, talking up the chance of jobs for his people, for the entire US East coast, and those same supply lines that he wanted to learn from the UK. Well he seems to be learning, he related how a “false start” at the wrong price and the wrong location has been re-started in 2016 and already he sees and offshore wind pipeline in his territory at 15 GW. “We are still a few chapters behind the UK he said,” then added, “We did a second 800 MW, and were immediately told we need to do two more” he said, “and every couple of years we have to repeat it.” At that rate the US will suck up many of the jobs that the UK pines for, and there is every chance that we will be importing good old US turbines, before long – from the same companies that make them here, especially if that US senate move is a perfect copy of the UK deals to attract the same type of jobs.

If the bill goes through it will create a federal grant program to assist colleges, universities, state and local governments, unions, and nonprofits in the development of programs to prepare workers for jobs in offshore wind. And we bet that a brain drain attracting UK and European talent to the US, will immediately begin too.

The US Department of Energy said that if the country used even 1% of its technical potential offshore wind capacity, it could power nearly 6.5 million homes.

These conferences have a sameness about them – revealing earnest honesty from the energy marketplace, but the equipment vendors still shamelessly offer sessions that are product pitches. GE went straight for the braggadocio of “size” with the comment, that this is one market where “size does count,”

It was of course talking up its Haliade-X blades, 107 meters long, with the biggest swept area on the market and one turbine alone can create enough electricity for 16,000 homes.

But while focusing on size the speaker from GE’s LM Windpower also boasted that it was so big that it needed special equipment to move it around, and that there were no test beds big enough to test the entire 107 meter length. He also said that the diameter of the hollow blades where they attach to the nacelle had gone from 2.3 meters across on old designs, to 4.8 meters on the current blades, up to 5.4 meters on the Haliade-X. These are not product features, they are significant development problems. The next speaker from Siemens Gamesa simply shrugged and said that he had a shorter blade with a pretty big swept area, but it could be tested, and his supply chain was already geared up to manufacture it, transport it, install it, and his pipeline included 900 MW in Taiwan and 450 MW in Japan. He also said that it used direct drive, with no gears and that this was a genuine feature, as it removed bulk from the nacelle which allowed the drive train and the transformer room there and then, putting all electrical maintenance in one place.

These were speaking in a design session, and claimed that by making their blades lighter and stiffer there were no great obstacles until they reached 150 meter blades. But for some reason no-one wants these onshore, only at sea.

Finally the last word from the conference came from Andrew Hine at Greenspur Renewables. He argues that China has almost complete control of the rare earth metals that are used for the magnets in the modern wind turbine, and so his company’s attempt to instead use ferrite magnets, would stop the $3 billion rare earth tail wagging the $7 trillion  EV and Renewables dog.

He said it was about to be tested by Catapult, and had computer modeled it up to 17 MW, which is only theoretical, but then again, without a year or two’s testing so is GE’s Haliade-X 12 MW delivery.