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Regional Growth & Utilities: Generating change

Espoused by the prime minister at the launch of COP26, offshore wind has become the poster child of clean energy. The latest in our ‘Regional Growth and Utilities’ series travels to the Humber to hear how its renewables story is showing the way on local regeneration. Suzanne Heneghan reports.

Regional growth policy may be the new wind blowing through Westminster, but head up north to the Humber and you’ll see how offshore wind is already transforming an area once in rapid decline.

In many ways, 2020 is this relatively young industry’s perfect moment, and the political plaudits are far from surprising. It ticks many of the government’s critical policy boxes for the coming decade, from net zero and sustainability to the now all-important delivery of economic growth to the regions.

The power of Grimsby

During the difficult, dark years of its declining fishing industry, which had once made it the biggest fishing port in the world, little did Grimsby know it would one day become a shining beacon in the UK’s renewables story.

At its maritime peak in the 1950s, the port’s trawlers brought in 500 tonnes of fish a day, but by the 1980s that heyday was a distant memory. The fishing industry, around which Grimsby’s community had been built, had dwindled, largely due to the notorious Cod Wars with its Nordic rival, Iceland.

Today, the town’s fish market remains one of the most important in the UK, although most of what is sold comes from other areas. The town is also recognised as the main centre of the UK’s fish processing industry, as well as having a strong chemicals and process sector. Yet Grimsby’s economic challenges are far from over.

However, the seaport’s fortuitous location on the south bank of the Humber estuary has once more thrown its residents a welcome lifeline.

Blessed with the increasingly valuable resource of pervasive wind power on its doorstep, the area is now home to a growing cluster of offshore wind farms in the deep waters of its historic commercial ally, the North Sea.

Just 75 miles off its coast lies the mammoth 174-­turbine Hornsea One from Danish generation giant Ørsted, the largest wind farm operator in the world.

Hornsea One first generated power last February and will be fully operational later this year. Twice as big as the world’s previous largest offshore wind farm – Ørsted’s Walney Extension project near Barrow-in-Furness – at 1.2GW, it is the first to offer more than 1GW of capacity and is also the furthest from shore.

The 50:50 joint venture between Ørsted (formerly Dong Energy) and Global Infrastructure Partners, forms part of a wider £6 billion investment to create a hub for the UK’s renewable energy sector. Ørsted is also the owner of future offshore developments, Hornsea Two, currently in construction, and Hornsea Three, offering a potential capacity of a further 3GW.

With a lifespan of around 25 years, Hornsea One will provide green power to in excess of one million homes every year. It is also expected to generate thousands of jobs in a region where skilled employment opportunities are in demand from the onshore community and its supply chain. As a result, the company – whose vision is “to create a world that runs entirely on green energy” – finds its projects perfectly aligned with today’s dual political narrative around decarbonisation and a levelling-up of UK economic growth, particularly in the North.

The local opportunity

Emma Toulson has grown up with Grimsby’s energy journey. Ørsted’s lead stakeholder adviser in the UK was born in the northeast Lincolnshire area, where her father worked in the oil and gas industry at the Port of Immingham. It’s both a family, and regional, irony that is difficult to miss. The Humber “energy estuary”, long known as a base for the fossil fuel sector that flanks the river (including two of the UK’s six main oil refineries), is now becoming synonymous with the rise of renewables.

Toulson’s remit has a strong North of England focus, working as she does with external stakeholders within those regions where Ørsted is particularly active. As well as its activities on the east coast, there are its northwest Burbo Bank projects at Liverpool Bay, and the Walney and West of Duddon Sands projects off Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria – as well as a host of other arrays around the country (see graphic, p12).

She says her previous roles in engineering and with local enterprise partnerships have equipped her well for a job she describes as “being on many levels”. Importantly, this includes being able to liaise sensitively with those stakeholders affected by the company’s projects, as well as highlighting the vast economic benefits available to the local economies they touch.

“Economic development is in my veins now. And there’s usually a number of strands to it, which reflect aspects within the industrial strategy,” Toulson says. “So, it’s usually around the employment and skills base, the business base and supply chain, infrastructure, and also innovation. If initiatives are delivered around those four themes, then this will maximise the economic benefits recognised in the place.

“We have spent a lot of time and effort to make sure we are part of the communities that we operate in. Because, for instance, once a turbine has been installed, it needs to be looked after for approximately 25 years. So, by its very nature, the opportunities are long term, highly valuable and sustainable within the community.

“It’s very important that we’re not just on the end of the dock, that we are part of the fabric of the community. That’s the way that the place will sustainably grow and feel the benefits of this industry.”

As history has shown, being close to critical infrastructure – such as canals, railways, road networks and, in this case, wind farms – can be an economic life-changer for a region.

“Somewhere like Grimsby is fantastic,” says Toulson, “because it is quite close to where the wind farms are. Then you have a lot of other factors that make Grimsby a great place for our base – the fact there is pre-existing port infrastructure that we were able to adapt for our needs. And on the north side of the river in Hull, there’s been a very large Siemens blade and installation port there. You have those synergies across the estuary.”

It all creates valuable economies of scale and other economic factors, such as workforce skills, that go hand in hand.

“We have been able to recruit the skills that were needed. But we also do a lot to promote the kinds of careers that are in this industry to the local workforce. We do quite a lot with young people, to show them what kinds of careers might be on offer and to encourage them into STEM subjects.”

There is also an established apprenticeship programme, now on its third intake, which works closely with local further education and training college, the Grimsby Institute.

The range of roles on offer at Grimsby, as well as at Ørsted’s other sites at Barrow and Birkenhead, is vast, says Toulson. Technicians – those employees who run and service the turbines – make up the largest proportion of its workforce, but there are myriad other roles, including various levels of management, communications and warehousing.

Selling the story

Fifteen years ago, when the industry started at scale, there were naysayers about the nascent sector, which has since developed into of the UK’s biggest economic success stories. For a community battered by previous economic circumstances as strong as the North Sea winds, was there any local wariness in the early days about embracing the renewables story?

“Obviously, it was literally a brand-new sector,” says Toulson. “We didn’t, in the UK, have that much onshore wind at the time. So, the idea of these turbines offshore, and what they would need, was like any kind of new industry coming into an area.

“But we’ve worked really well with the local authorities and enterprise partnerships in all the areas we’re in. There are obviously a lot of benefits that a company like Ørsted coming into an area can bring. I think [the reception] was generally very positive.

“Now, most would agree that renewables are a fantastic thing for places like Grimsby, Barrow and Birken­head. Our east and west communities have done a really good job of responding to the opportunity that’s been presented… Particularly in the past five years you have really seen quite significant growth. And now it is a case of continuing to build and grow.”

A step-change factor has been the offshore wind sector deal between government and industry, adds Toulson, with its aim to “build on the UK’s global leadership in offshore wind” and “maximise the advantages for industry” from the shift to clean energy.

The document, released in March last year, talked of 30GW of offshore wind by 2030, with an extra 20 or so gigawatts of that within the next decade. Government has since ramped up that original ambition, to 40GW by 2030. This, Toulson points out, could drive a leap in employment from 11,000 to 27,000.

“So, it’s important we don’t sit on our hands, but continue to keep inspiring what will be the workforce of the future, to guide them into the right career pathways so they can access this immense opportunity.”

A growing profile

A few years ago, when Toulson told her Kent friends she was off to study at Hull University, some responded: “Where’s that?” These days, however, Humberside’s profile is rising rapidly. From Hull being crowned City of Culture in 2017 to the announcement of a new town deal for Grimsby in 2018, aimed at regenerating the area, progress is happening and being noticed.

“I think the economic spotlight has had a ripple effect,” says Toulson, and it’s something she believes will expand as the industry develops further.

“Now that wind is really becoming quite a significant part of the energy mix, it’s got the opportunity to, yes, produce electricity, but also in the future to potentially play a role in the decarbonisation of other things. I think that’s an exciting opportunity up ahead as well.”

With recent landmark conferences and summits in the region, including the Northern Powerhouse Clean Growth Conference in Hull last November, and the Waterline Summit – looking at a complete model to decarbonise the Humber – the area is gaining traction as a big player in the road to net zero.

It may live with the juxtaposition of being the UK’s biggest polluting industrial corridor and busiest port complex – including providing a base for coal imports and huge meat processing activity – but Marketing Humber is also billing its region as the perfect microcosm for becoming a priority area for decarbonisation.

At the close of last year, its chair, Andy Parkinson, was reported as urging government: “There is no better place within the North to develop, test and deploy the technologies which will help us decarbonise the economy and create clean growth… Come here and experiment – and let us get it done.”

That growing spotlight is something Toulson has also seen attract increasing international interest.

“In our facilities this year we’ve hosted Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, to name a few. I still find it quite staggering in some ways that people are travelling from Japan to come to Grimsby and Hull, but it’s because here is where the new markets are opening up. They want to see how it looks, how it is more mature.

“One of the things we’re now trying to do while the spotlight is on, is to make the connection between the UK business bases and those parties coming from overseas. That potential could bring export opportunities. It’s using the opportunity to make sure that the right connections are made. Because the UK is setting an example. We can show how it’s done.”

Hornsea One

• One rotation of a blade, which takes around six seconds, can power a home for more than 24 hours.

• At 120km from shore, it’s the furthest from shore an offshore wind farm has ever been built.

• It covers an area of 407km2.

• Hornsea One has 174 Siemens Gamesa 7MW turbines (more than 190m tall from sea level to blade), with the majority of the blades manufactured in Hull.

• Hornsea One also has its own 4G/LTE network, supplying every turbine with internet coverage.

• The project also features the longest ever wind cable system, at a total length of 467km – around the same distance from London to Newcastle.

Grimsby’s East Coast Hub (ECH)

• There are four offshore wind farms directly managed from the ECH – Westermost Rough, Lincs, Race Bank and Gunfleet Sands, located in the South East.

• Hornsea One and Hornsea Two will officially join the East Coast portfolio as the world’s largest wind farms this year and in 2022.

• The brand-new East Coast Hub, the largest operations and maintenance (O&M) base of its kind, has a total workforce of more than 360 (including 165 Ørsted employees and 150 long-term O&M contractors).

• More than 83% of Ørsted’s ECH workforce live within an hour’s drive of the site.

Community support

• Ørsted’s East Coast Community Fund (ECCF) has committed £9.3 million to support worthy environmental and community projects in the area.

• The ECCF will donate approximately £465,000 every year for the next 20 years, £75,000 of which is ringfenced for a skills fund.

• It also supports the Women into Manufacturing and Engineering initiative in the Humber to encourage women and girls into the offshore wind industry.