The eastern region has revelled in having the most installed capacity in the UK. Now other regions, hungry for their share of multi-billion-pound investment, are shaping their offer as centres of renewables excellence.
Is the region to suffer déjà vu and be surpassed once more as a sector leader after losing its gas crown to Aberdeen nearly 50 years ago?
Insight Energy asked East of England Offshore Wind Cluster Champion Martin Dronfield if he shared this fear, and if the region’s ‘all energy’ badge of honour was confusing and diluting its identity more than driving its reputation as renewables centre of excellence.
Norfolk and Suffolk put great stock in their shared banner as a ‘unique’ all-energy mix of oil and gas, nuclear and renewables. But is this multi-disciplinary approach confusing and weakening the region’s push to achieve its potential in offshore wind and maintain its position as UK and world leader?
Is it recognised as an energy powerhouse where it matters? And what is the ‘region’? Norfolk and Suffolk, or does it include Cambridgeshire and Essex? These questions trouble Dronfield.
“In this region we struggle to attract investment. We struggle to make our voices heard – in Westminster and nationally,” he said.
“The energy landscape in the East of England has become more and more complex in the last decade. We have introduced offshore wind where there has been oil and gas, and we have the huge potential of nuclear as well as significant onshore solar, battery storage and significant biomass here too, and let’s not forget the future potential of hydrogen, CCUS and even geothermal.”
This means 50 years’ offshore expertise to switch to renewables – an advantage competitors don’t have – not to mention the nuclear expertise across the Sizewell supply chain.
But is promoting the region as an all-energy mix holding it back rather than propelling it into the spotlight as a key clean energy development and investment area? Is the region’s ‘selling point’ important to investors and the government, or a muddle of profile, image and purpose stymying growth?
“I worry that it might be,” said Dronfield. “Defining clearly what we want to be seen as and how we tell our story might have better results. It’s something we must not dismiss and consider carefully. Complexity never helps create a clear message.”
With offshore wind key to the government’s 10-point ‘build back greener and better’ plan and the release of its energy white paper, the East of England’s offshore wind capability voice needs to ring loudest.
“I want the region to fulfil its potential. I want to see investors attracted here and developers enjoying the region’s help. I want our schools and colleges to succeed in delivering the skills our industry needs for the future.”
We’ve been here before. Nearly half a century ago, Great Yarmouth lost its crown as oil and gas sector leader to Aberdeen, leaving Norfolk and Suffolk to play bridesmaid ever since.
Dronfield knows the Southern North Sea from all angles. He served his apprenticeship in the SNS in oil and gas, with many years spent on gas platforms.
Until last year, he was part of the leadership of the £100m annual turnover business James Fisher Marine Services for seven years, a company that led James Fisher & Sons’ charge into offshore wind.
What the ‘region’ looks like preoccupies him. “It is so much bigger than Norfolk and Suffolk: Including Cambridge and the Essex Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas makes it such a bigger player than just Norfolk and Suffolk,” he said.
“There is a lot of thinking, talking, listening and planning ahead to bring many stakeholders together to define what the East of England is, but critical to our efforts is that we speak with one clear voice.
“The East of England has some amazing companies and highly talented leaders. We have much to build on, and willing ambitious people to forge ahead to achieve all that the region has worked for and deserves. But we need to do this soon because time is ticking fast.”
Even if the 3.6GW of Vattenfall’s Norfolk projects, Vanguard and Boreas – Vanguard is already consented, but the subject of a judicial review and Boreas planning process is delayed because of Covid-19 – and ScottishPower Renewables’ 3.1GW East Anglia Hub – also the focus of organised objectors – go ahead on schedule, no construction projects will happen off our coast for another 18 to 24 months.
“Half of our supply chain don’t know how to look further than the SNS for work. We talk about exporting and make the assumption that every company is worldly and knowns how to take their services and skills abroad. But many are nervous and could do with some help.”
If the projects do not go ahead, more than net zero targets will be missed.
“What we have got to lose is real people, real companies and real jobs if these projects don’t go ahead. This region, more than any other region, is on a knife edge. Many companies will survive, and many know how to export their services, skills and people, but many won’t survive.
“Without momentum the region will wither. Sponsors will not sponsor, and educators will not be able to educate, east coast schools and colleges will suffer.”
The role of cluster champion is clearly tougher than the title suggests, and one that Dronfield is determined to take to the next level.