At three mothballed fabrication yards in Scotland, promises by Boris Johnson that the UK would become the “Saudi Arabia” of wind power rang hollow as their owner BiFab, a producer of giant foundations for offshore turbines, collapsed last month.
The move into administration by the 20-year-old Fife company, which at its peak employed up to 2,000 workers at the three yards, came just a fortnight after the UK prime minister had placed offshore wind at the centre of his “green industrial revolution”. Mr Johnson’s 10-point plan promised 60,000 jobs and turbines in British waters that would “power every home” by 2030.
BiFab’s struggles in recent years, which saw it lose out on lucrative contracts on UK projects to competitors in the United Arab Emirates and China, meant its collapse came as little surprise.
But the demise of the company, which had its roots in the North Sea oil industry, was still a painful reminder of the empty promises made by successive governments that offshore wind would herald a bright new industrial dawn for Britain.
The UK’s waters are home to more offshore wind farms than anywhere else in the world but this concentration has not translated into the jobs and manufacturing boom envisaged in the years since the first one came on stream 20 years ago.
In his last year in office in 2010, then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown said the UK’s leading position in offshore wind meant the sector could support up to 70,000 jobs by 2020. But in reality, direct employment and supply chain jobs stand at an estimated 11,000, according to RenewableUK, the industry lobby group.
“It’s a con,” said Gary Smith, secretary of the GMB union in Scotland, which includes BiFab workers among its members. “What the UK is, is the biggest offshore wind sector in the world and the only expertise is about how we offshore jobs.”
His scepticism is shared in north-east England, another area of the UK that had hoped to benefit from an offshore wind jobs boom.
The region is “living off the crumbs of the major orders”, said Bruce Shepherd, chairman of Shepherd Offshore, a family-owned Newcastle business that owns industrial sites on the banks of the Tyne. “The government isn’t insisting the fabrication is done in the UK like it was when we were doing oil and gas.”
RenewableUK estimates that for every pound of capital expenditure on offshore wind projects, which accounts for the lion’s share of overall spend, just 29p goes into the UK economy. If development costs, operations and maintenance are added in, based on an assumed 30-year life cycle, this figure increases to 48 per cent.
Mr Johnson has said he wants that figure to rise to 60 per cent by 2030, which includes between 40 and 50 per cent of capex spent with UK-based suppliers, according to the business department.
But Dennis Clark, the former chairman of engineering company Offshore Group Newcastle, who has long highlighted the difficulties for British companies trying to win work in offshore wind, said the government needed to be more ambitious. “It needs to be 60 per cent of capex.”
:climateIn November, ministers launched a consultation that included proposals to strip developers of subsidy contracts if they failed to deliver promised support for the UK supply chain. The business department said “ensuring the UK’s workforce and supply chain can fully share in the offshore wind sector’s success is a key priority for the government”.
Offshore wind developers, which include some of the largest European energy groups such as Denmark’s Orsted, Norway’s Equinor, Spain’s Iberdrola and the UK’s SSE, have insisted UK companies have been capturing more of the overall spend in recent years.
Keith Anderson, chief executive of ScottishPower, which is owned by Iberdrola, told the FT Energy Transition Strategies Summit in December that UK content eight years ago was closer to 30 to 35 per cent.
General Electric is exploring the case for building a wind turbine factory in north-east England that would give the government’s push an early boost, adding to other manufacturing sites, including MHI Vestas Offshore Wind’s blade plant on the Isle of Wight and a similar facility owned by Siemens Gamesa in Hull.
But unions insist one new factory would do little to boost the UK’s global position in the industry and called on ministers to do more to show they were serious. “The plight of BiFab highlights the total absence of an active strategy to support and develop our domestic renewables manufacturing base,” said Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect union.
Developers said government subsidy auctions for offshore wind, which tend to prioritise the lowest costs to consumers, lead to big contracts going overseas as this makes tenders to supply the kit extremely price sensitive often to the detriment of UK-based companies. “If there’s a relentless drive to cut costs to the bone then this is where we end up,” said Nick Sharpe of Scottish Renewables, the Glasgow-based green energy lobby group.
They also pointed to under-investment in key infrastructure over the last two decades, which has left UK manufacturers struggling to compete with the more modern and efficient facilities elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
In contrast, successive governments in Denmark, one of the early pioneers of wind power, have supported the sector since its inception and the country boasts large manufacturing hubs around modern port facilities.
Paul Cooley, director of capital projects at SSE, said: “Having large ports with a large amount of quayside and real estate to lay down equipment . . . those become really important in mass production.”
Industry executives said the UK government’s recent £160m commitment to help modernise ports and manufacturing infrastructure was a fraction of what was needed.
But there are opportunities for the UK to build a strong position in areas such as electrical systems and blade technology, according to Andrew Macdonald, senior innovation manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
“It’s about spotting the real opportunities where there is a need for increased capacity [and] where the UK has facilities and skills available to deliver that,” he said.