UK catapulted to forefront of offshore

The UK, a world leader in so many fields throughout its history, has a chance to show the way again.

The country that gave us the steam engine, the electric motor, the world wide web, the jet engine, light bulbs, the telephone, television and the automatic teller machine (not forgetting the literature, plays, music and global sports enjoyed by billions) is well positioned to put itself at the forefront of one of the 21st century’s most important industries.

Britain, which has the greatest offshore-energy potential in Europe, can lead the world in developing an industry that will generate tens of thousands of jobs in engineering, manufacturing, installation, maintenance and operations services, while contributing billions of pounds in taxes.

Then there is the matter of exports — electricity, of course, but technologies and engineering know-how as well.

As an island nation surrounded by some of the world’s best offshore wind and marine-energy potential, the UK has a ready resource to meet its carbon-reduction targets. But the government is clear: today’s cost of offshore power needs to be reduced substantially by 2020 — by 30-40% in the case of wind.

Achieving this is possible by allowing innovation to thrive and by focusing on common standards, manufacturing scale and delivery. We need a more co-ordinated approach, with the supply chain, developers, financiers and politicians all working closely to identify where costs can be reduced.

That’s where the Technology Strategy Board’s Catapult programme comes in. I head the Glasgow-based Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, one of seven technology and innovation centres that will transform the UK’s innovation capability in the long term, with more than £1bn ($1.63bn) of private and public investment over the next few years.

The ORE Catapult will help Britain seize the opportunity to lead the world in offshore wind, wave and tidal electricity production. In the process, we will create economic growth, jobs and exports, and help the country increase low-carbon, affordable generation.

Some early projects are already under way. For instance, we are working closely with Mainstream Renewable Power and its partners to promote the use of floating Lidar technology to reduce the cost of offshore wind measurements. We are also pitching one of our first innovation project opportunities, in partnership with the Satellite Applications Catapult, to monitor subsidence in offshore structures via remote sensing, using Satellite Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar.

The ORE Catapult is a critical element of a shared vision in which government, industry and the supply chain all have vital roles. We need to learn commercial lessons from other sectors, such as the offshore oil and gas, aerospace and automotive industries, and deliver consistent, joined-up thinking to provide investor confidence and maximise installed offshore renewables capacity and the resulting economic, social and environmental benefits.

The Catapult programme comes from the government approaching innovation in a way that hasn’t been done for many years. It recognises that Britain has a world-class domestic industrial base, small and medium-sized businesses and academia. But historically we have not been good at joining up the parts to realise their full potential. Just look at some of those great inventions: the jet engine, TV and the world wide web were conceived by Britons, but their full potential was exploited overseas. And don’t get started on all those sports that Britain gave to the world, only to discover that the world played them better!

The ORE Catapult works closely with academia and companies — from manufacturers and owners of power plants to small businesses — to de-risk innovation and help it get adopted more quickly. We are creating a centre of excellence with deep technological and engineering expertise, and are recruiting more than 100 experienced engineers and technologists over the next couple of years — people with knowledge of what it takes to get a project or a technology to market.

We will not be issuing capital grants, but will provide leadership, access and connectivity, engineering and technical expertise to assist the growth and development of technical solutions.

We have a huge part to play in enabling the entire UK offshore renewables sector — wind, wave and tidal — to realise its full economic potential.

Andrew Jamieson is chief executive of the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry