Pictured: Professor Sir Jim McDonald

In Conversation with… Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Published 13 April 2023

Over the past 10 years there has been a remarkable transformation in the offshore renewable energy sector, and ORE Catapult has been at the very heart of this.  

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and one of Scotland’s most accomplished engineers, reflects on the last 10 years and the impact that ORE Catapult has had on the sector. 


There is lot to celebrate in the last 10 years of offshore renewable energy. Since 2013 we’ve seen a 70% reduction in the cost of offshore wind and installed capacity has grown from 3.5GW to soon to be over 14GW. UK Government targets are challenging the sector to increase offshore wind capacity to 50GW by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050.

What’s been most important is the response to the scale of the opportunity and the creation of an ecosystem where innovators, industrialists, the public sector, and academic groups focus on what is required, and work together to achieve it.

We’re at a tipping point in the UK and across the world to commit to renewable energy. The maturity and sophistication of technological solutions, products and the increasing industrial infrastructure means that people see a pathway to putting renewables at the heart of the future energy strategy.

When it comes to offshore wind and, increasingly, floating offshore wind, we need to ensure we get the manufacturing base and supply chain in the UK going, invest in our skills base and attract foreign investment from the industry’s biggest developers.

Our skills base

Renewables provides a platform for all educational capabilities – we need a skilled workforce, technicians, operators, designers, and those with research and innovation skills.

A report last year estimated that there would be up to 100,000 jobs in offshore wind by 2030 so the scale of the opportunity is enormously attractive. We must make sure we create and retain these all-important skills.

For me, the ‘just transition’ is about giving someone a job that’s well-paid, long lasting, and provides the opportunity to develop a career. At the University of Strathclyde, we take the highest number of young people from the two most challenged quintiles in the Scottish economy, measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. We must improve access across all backgrounds and ensure the sector is accessible.

I used to be chairman of Glasgow Science Centre and working with Glasgow City Council to provide free transport and reach kids from challenging communities worked. Sometimes it’s such simple measures that can make a disproportionate impact on the attraction of young people into science and engineering.

It’s the responsibility of a leader to put plenty of ladders behind them, creating plenty of opportunity for people to access. If we don’t create the skills base, we will not create economic opportunity across the UK.

The earlier we attract youngsters and get them excited about STEM subjects, the better. But we also need to focus on what the collective academic and industrial communities can do better together.

It’s not about force feeding youngsters to be engineers. It’s about lighting a beacon of interest and making it clear that engineering provides the solutions to global challenges. Teachers alongside universities and colleges can support them to see what engineering can do.

I have the pleasure of meeting inspirational young people, driven by a social mission that’s more than engineering – it’s a means to making a difference. Today’s generation is much more socially aware and progressive than my generation, and they are committed to making an impact on people’s lives.

We need to make sure that we develop our skilled workforce as a magnet to attract foreign investment, as well as supporting indigenous companies.

10 Years of ORE Catapult

When I first became involved in the Catapult, I was sold on the commitment to innovation and the acceleration of offshore renewable energy development and deployment.

Ten years ago, setting up ORE Catapult in Scotland seemed entirely appropriate, given the level of natural resource we had, the leadership we had from a policy point of view, and our academic and growing industrial base.

The merger with colleagues in NAREC in Blyth was very important as we developed a physical infrastructure to complement the knowledge base, creating a powerful combination of expertise, supporting delivery of innovative technology and systems, and de-risking the innovation journey for small companies. ORE Catapult’s journey over the past ten years is remarkable and the evidence demonstrates it was a great investment for the UK.

If we didn’t have ORE Catapult, it would have to be invented. It has become a champion of innovation.

The Future

The UK Government recently published its new science and technology framework, committing to make the UK a science and technology superpower. The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has been a relentless and fantastic advocate for engineering and science in the heart of government.

But this is a global race. We need consistency of policy commitment to the sector, an evolution of regulation that supports innovation, and the building up of a skilled workforce.

The starting pistol has already gone on meeting our targets for 2030 in advance of targeting net zero of 2050. We need to understand how our offshore wind deployments sit within and contributes to an interconnected energy ecosystem.

ORE Catapult is critical for the UK to deliver its net zero targets, but it must be seen in the context of an overarching energy system.

Offshore wind, energy storage, green hydrogen, electrification of transport systems, decarbonised built environment and smart grids need to be part of this system – no one component can deliver our net zero future. However, if we don’t start delivering by 2030, the stretch to 2050 is going to be extremely challenging.

For ORE Catapult, I would say – keep doing what you’re doing and keep ambition levels high – so that we can achieve net zero and realise economic opportunity.

Almost 100 years ago, the Electricity Supply Act in the UK imagined the creation of an ‘electric gridiron of connections’ – the national grid. We need that same vision, ambition and delivery focus  on what an energy system of the future will look like.


To find out more, listen to ‘In Conversation With…Sir Jim McDonald’ on our ReEnergise podcast here