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Insights from ORE Catapult’s Supply Chain Spotlight 2023

Published 19 December 2023

This blog was written by Jamie Platts, Senior Analyst, ORE Catapult

The UK has been at the forefront of the offshore wind industry ever since the first commercial site, North Hoyle, appeared off Northern coast of Wales in 2003. That site, ground-breaking at the time,  with 30 2MW turbines, is dwarfed by today’s wind farms, both in terms of the number and size of turbines. Now, twenty years and nearly 15GW of installed capacity later, the UK finds itself at a juncture of how to realise the Government’s target for offshore wind energy, 50GW by 2030.

Many factors will play a role in realising such lofty ambitions, including consenting, job creation initiatives and government allocation rounds (an Analysis & Insights favourite – see previous blog posts). However, it was the supply chain that brought over 500 delegates to Edinburgh on a wet December’s morning. The UK Offshore Wind Supply Chain Spotlight event was attended by SMEs with just a handful of employees all the way up to major windfarm owners. ORE Catapult and the Offshore Wind Growth Partnership’s (OWGP) supply chain spotlight event is a chance for all parts of the supply chain to get together under one roof and discuss the challenges of meeting net zero.

The day kicked off with opening addresses from ORE Catapult’s CEO, Andrew Jamieson, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy, Neil Gray MSP, and Richard Sandford, co-chair of OWIC. The three of them were joined by Tim Pick, the UK’s former Offshore Wind Champion and current OWGP chair, for a panel discussion of what is required to reach the UK’s clean energy targets. It was heartening to hear from the Cabinet Secretary about the level of investment being pledged to support the ambition – this led to an amusing faux pas from Richard Sandford, where a few zeroes were missing from the original quote.

After the end of back-to-back panel sessions, the day continued with further panel sessions intermingled with interesting break-out sessions. These sessions provided delegates with the opportunity to attend speakers of most interest to them. Amongst them was ‘Creating a Sustainable Offshore Wind Supply Chain’, a panel session, hosted by ORE Catapult’s Strategy and Emerging Technology Director Steve Wyatt, discussing the topic of sustainability. This proved to be one of the most talked about sessions of the day. A key headline being that, despite the impressive buildout of wind turbines -offshore and onshore we are on course to have 1.2 million blades, that is 400,000 turbines, come to the end of their economic lives in 2050. The big question is, what happens then? All were in agreement that the worst option was landfill and that companies, big and small, are invested in trying to come up with innovative solutions to reuse, or repurpose into the likes of bus shelters. The worst best result is to recycle.

Another interesting question to come out of this particular session was what to do with turbine foundations. It appears that there are still contrasting opinions. On one hand, they could be left in place and act as a marine habitat, but the other argument is that sustainability does not simply mean a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability encompasses far more, such as how we use and subsequently reuse raw materials. In this case, the opposing argument is that precious metals have been used to build a wind turbine and those metals should be salvaged and used in other projects. Also, crucially, reusing or repurposing does not necessarily have to be in wind turbines, it could be in other industries, and on a similar note materials from other industries could potentially be used in the wind sector.

A final area of note from this panel session was the acknowledgement that larger turbines simply replacing smaller ones may not be the answer. Larger turbines need more space to be able to extract enough wind energy to make economic sense. By building the larger turbines of today or tomorrow on top of yesterdays foundations, they will not have enough space to achieve their maximum electrical output. Decisions will have to be made how best to sustainable reconfigure wind farms once decommissioning begins to take place on a large scale, and, if we do choose to remove, that involves significant amounts of energy to remove a foundation from the earth that we tried hard to ensure wouldn’t come out when it was first installed. Clearly, a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion, and we haven’t even touched on the other turbine components!

The breakout sessions were sponsored by Ocean Winds and Orsted. It was fascinating to have sessions involving energy powerhouses whilst also showcasing new and exciting companies within their supply chain. There were a number of key findings from these sessions. On a micro level, one company, Hutchinson Steel, had experienced volatility in the number of sales year on year, and they found it hard to manage that uncertainty. This has direct comparisons to the sector as a whole, which is also battling with unpredictability. Developers are seeking greater reliability in terms of the number of orders, a crucial element in achieving macro targets. Another company, Sennen, found that simply having links to a major owner/operator gave them a greater footing in the industry. This shone greater light on all of the speakers, pitching on behalf of their companies for support breaking into the market.

The industry needs new, innovative and daring companies who are prepared to keep knocking on the door. One of the final lines – from an excellently put together event – was perhaps the most significant. The supply chain must be ready to show the required grit and determination in order to achieve their ultimate aim and that is applicable across the board, to each company involved in this challenging but exciting industry.