Cross-sector innovation in renewable energy will drive green UK supply chain growth.
The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on the global economy. Most sectors are feeling the effects but industries such as automotive, aerospace, defence and oil and gas in particular have been hard hit by the global economic downturn. These industries, once the main pillars of the economy, may never be the same again.
As attention turns to recovery, now is the time to hit the reset button with regard to carbon emissions and use this opportunity to accelerate the transition to net zero. Those same sectors and their associated supply chains can perhaps find green shoots of opportunity within the growing renewable energy industries, in technologies such as offshore wind, tidal energy, and green hydrogen for example, as the world gets back on track to tackle the climate emergency.
The UK’s commitment to becoming a net zero carbon economy by 2050 dictates a pressing need to expand our national clean energy infrastructure, with a near four-fold expansion of our current offshore wind capacity by 2030, and perhaps double that again by 2050.
Growing demands for green energy
This growing demand for green electricity, as we transition from fossil fuels towards a low-carbon energy supply, creates a platform from which to foster and facilitate cross-sector partnerships and innovation, taking advantage of critical expertise and experience in some of the UK’s leading industries to meet future demand and provide the catalyst for robust economic recovery.
Work is forging ahead, with research and testing programmes, site development, maintenance and project build-outs spearheading an industry in which the UK is already a world-leader. But if the green economy is also to spark a wider economic recovery, those industries with directly translatable proven technology and knowledge must recognise the opportunity to diversify into a market with anticipated exponential growth over the coming decades.
A heavy reliance on innovation
The UK’s offshore renewable energy industry is heavily reliant on technology innovation to continually improve and become more efficient and cost-effective. Adopting proven technologies from other, more established, industries is much more efficient then developing new technologies from the ground up. For offshore wind, there are clear synergies in operations and maintenance procedures with the oil and gas, automotive and aerospace sectors.
However, inspiration and innovation can come from all sorts of industries. Take oil and gas, for example. Decades of accumulated experience of installing, operating and maintaining industrial energy plant in a hostile marine environment is directly translatable. Subsea technologies – remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vessels and dynamic cables, are equally transferable from one industry to the other.
There is a natural alignment between the two sectors in terms of skills and technology transfer that will inevitably allow the offshore wind industry – particularly floating offshore wind – to grow while also aiding the de-carbonisation of the oil and gas sector.
Similarly, in aerospace, the opportunities for supply chain diversification chain are enormous. Aircraft wings and helicopter rotors are subject to similar stresses and strains as those experienced by wind turbine blades. Development of new, lighter and stronger materials for construction and coatings to survive in harsh conditions are essential for bigger and more powerful turbines operating ever further from shore.
Government funding for innovation in renewables
The Government-funded programme, The Offshore Wind Innovation Hub, is run by the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) in collaboration with industry and academia, It has identified, the specific innovation requirements and priorities for the sector, facilitating both supply chain opportunities and funding prioritisation.
The Catapult already supports many UK companies, large and small, to develop, demonstrate and take to market innovative technologies and services that are driving the industry forward. Through programmes such as the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership, established as part of the UK Offshore Wind Sector Deal, the National Launch Academy and Fit 4 Offshore Renewables, the industry is building a competent, capable and competitive UK offshore renewable energy supply chain, implementing productivity improvement programmes and facilitating shared growth opportunities.
While sector growth in the UK provides significant opportunity, it is a truly global market with huge and growing demand from across Europe, China, the US, Japan and elsewhere. From innovative start-ups developing novel and disruptive technologies with new materials or artificial intelligence, to universities developing new software or sensors and some of the world’s biggest companies developing ever larger turbines, the offshore wind industry is already a major UK success story, and the opportunity just keeps on growing.
The cross-sector transfer of innovation, technology and experience will not only help tackle the climate emergency but can help to re-power the UK economy.
Andrew Jamieson is Chief Executive of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.