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'It’s all to play for in Norfolk and Suffolk as transition to wind energy ramps up'

David Dukes, head of inward investment at New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, discusses why the transition to wind power has become so important for the Norfolk-Suffolk region.

The world’s largest offshore wind market is in the UK with 10gw of the 29.1gw global capacity currently installed in the UK. This has been so for some years and recent announcements targeting 40gw in the UK by 2030 indicate this trend is to continue.

The east coast of England is the premier location with its wind conditions and shallower water depths and is set to maintain this position.

Norfolk and Suffolk have certainly benefited in the past 10 years or so, with construction projects taking place from Gt Yarmouth for Race Bank’s foundations and Wind Turbine Generators for Sheringham Shoal, Galloper and, most recently, East Anglia ONE. Wells-next-the-Sea also experienced a short-term boom from the Sheringham Shoal build and hopefully there is more of this to come.

We also have several operations and maintenance bases in Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Wells/Egmere and we have worked to develop the manufacturing and engineering supply chain, recently launching the Fit 4 Offshore Renewables programme to support the drive towards energy transition. Again, we expect further investment to take place locally as more windfarms are built. This has already brought significant long-term investment into our energy-focused Enterprise Zones and hundreds of new jobs to Norfolk and Suffolk. Yet the real prize will be derived from increased manufacturing capacity.

Offshore wind is already playing the lead role in our transition to a low carbon economy and the huge strides taken by the industry to reduce the need for subsidies. Research from Imperial College London suggests that by the mid-2020s wind projects may be able to provide negative subsidies. This is an outstanding achievement and is widely welcomed. Government has repaid this with the proposition of more wind farms and the prospect of a generous Contract for Difference round in 2021.

Manufacturing investment in the UK has been notably small over the past decade. MHI Vestas has had a blade plant on the Isle of Wight since 2011 and only very recently has it started to deliver significant economic impact. The WTG tower factory on the west coast of Scotland, was taken over by CS Wind in 2016 with much anticipation, only for that investment to be lost earlier this year. The Siemens blade factory in Hull is of course a success story, as is the JDR Cable facility in Hartlepool. Then there was a long hiatus until the recent announcement by SeAH Steel to build a foundation facility in the Humber. But we all expected more, much more.

So, what has happened? For the past few years we have engaged closely with several different component manufacturers, where facilities at our local ports have in every case been deemed optimal. For a while, manufacturers told us they needed more clarity from Government in showing a commitment to the long-term delivery of windfarms. That’s certainly in place now. The other problem is the rapidly changing capacity of wind turbines. Only five years ago blades were c80m long, now they are 108m and growing. Towers, cables and foundations are all growing in tandem as megawattages continue to increase. How does a manufacturer plan for a factory that will still be big enough in five years' time?

Then there is the fact that turbine and component manufacturers all have existing capacity elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Far easier to expand those facilities than build new. It comes back to how willing the Government is to enforce the UK capacity targets agreed in the Offshore Wind Sector Deal, which was launched in Great Yarmouth. And are they enforceable?

These factories are huge undertakings, costing tens of millions of pounds to build, with long lead times for their delivery. With only a very small number of customers, manufacturers will need to be confident that they will have sufficient business to keep a new plant busy for many years. So inevitably, they will look to the public sector for help to bring the cost of building a factory as much as possible. There is certainly a desire to avoid paying for up front infrastructure costs, before the first steels are erected.

The recent announcement by the Government to launch a Ports Infrastructure Fund was welcome news. This provides a new opportunity to ease the path to delivering new manufacturing investment and we hope it could lead to at least one project landing here. New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership has a proven track record as shown in the energy sector deal in bringing partners together to collaborate and making these projects a success. We look forward to continuing this. There are relatively few suitable ports along the east coast capable of hosting manufacturing, but Great Yarmouth is certainly one of them. The benefits of manufacturing investment would be spread far wider than the host port and we have an extremely capable supply chain across Norfolk and Suffolk to support our offer.