IN DEPTH: Offshore RE Catapult

Few people – if any – have held as many influential jobs within the UK’s adolescent offshore wind sector as Andrew Jamieson.

In addition to his past roles as policy and innovation director at ScottishPower Renewables and chairman of the Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Task Force (which last summer published a seminal report on the sector’s key challenges) Jamieson is chairman of the trade body RenewableUK.

Yet his newest job – chief executive of the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, for which he left ScottishPower after 25 years – is perhaps his most challenging and important yet.

Despite its relatively large budget – £50m ($78m) of public money over the next five years, with every reason to believe it will be expanded beyond then – many in the offshore sector have only a vague idea of what this Glasgow-based organisation is supposed to do for them.

The government established it last year alongside six other technology “catapults”, focusing on such areas as future cities, the connected digital economy and satellite applications, with the intention of accelerating innovation in sectors seen as critical to the UK’s economic future.

Some have described the catapults as Britain's attempt to recreate the success of Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

“The proposition of the catapult comes from the recognition that in the UK we have some very, very good R&D facilities and academic institutions turning out top-class ideas for industry, and on the other side some very good industrial and engineering companies,” Jamieson explains.

“What we’re less good at is taking one to the other – getting those ideas through the commercial and technical stages to the market.”

And so Jamieson, with his deep Rolodex and encyclopaedic knowledge of offshore wind, will spend the next few years connecting the dots for an industry that has yet to come together into a cohesive whole.

In some cases, that will mean helping entrepreneurs or small businesses approach the market or large-scale testing facilities with new ideas or products; in other cases, it will mean helping utilities and developers to understand their “innovation needs”, and linking them up with the brightest research minds.

Rather than investing directly in projects such as the Green Investment Bank, nearly all of the organisation’s budget will be spent hiring advisers, engineers and other experts who will be made available to help catalyse the industry’s development. Up to 150 people will join the group over the next few years.

“We’re not a grant-giving body, and we’re not looking to own [intellectual property],” Jamieson says.

One area of immediate interest for ORE Catapult is the collision point between floating foundations and Lidar technology, which uses lasers to measure wind speeds and other factors.

Jamieson notes that onshore it might cost a developer £100,000 to put up a meteorological mast, while “offshore, at the moment, it’s anywhere between £10m and £20m, because you need to put it on a jacket and fix it to the seabed”.

“If we’re able to pull different people together, get this type of technology tried and tested, get the banks comfortable with it, then not only do we cut costs, but we also start to give ourselves a lot more data as an industry.”

Another promising aspect is the potential for collaboration with other catapults. For example, the catapult focused on satellites might look at how that technology can monitor wind speeds, tidal flows and the movement of sea fronts for the offshore wind sector.

In trying to come to grips with the potential economic benefits of offshore wind to the UK, one of the biggest mistakes made by politicians and industry has been placing too heavy an emphasis on turbine manufacturing," Jamieson says.

He points out that at least half the value in a project comes not from turbines but from the “balance of plant”: foundations, cables, switchgear.

“When the offshore oil and gas industry moved into the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of people were convinced that all the economic value was going to go to North American extraction companies, that the UK wouldn’t gain much from it.”

But in reality, Britain has developed a “world-class” offshore services sector, which today exports its expertise around the world.

“Here we are again,” Jamieson says, “with the world’s first significant offshore wind programme, and coming behind that is wave and tidal, and why aren’t we looking at – expecting – the same opportunity for those sectors?

“Let’s develop the know-how, the really expert understanding of how to design and deploy these plants, and then let’s export that knowledge around the world.”