Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
The Government talks endlessly about ‘prioritising the Northern Powerhouse’, whilst ignoring the huge economic potential of the Eastern Powerhouse, which actually delivers power. “The East of England is powering the Northern Powerhouse, and fuelling the Midlands Engine, but people are simply not aware of that,” explains a frustrated Simon Gray, Chief Executive Officer of the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR):
“I’ve had, at the last count, at least nine energy ministers in the time I’ve been in office, and just as we get to the point where we have managed to get our message across they move onto another department and I have to start all over again.”
Following the latest Cabinet reshuffle, Simon Gray is now on his tenth energy minister in his eight years at the helm.
Small wonder that Government lacks a clear Energy Strategy to meet expanding demand, unaware of the exceptional opportunities off Eastern England, despite energetic support from local Conservative MPs, Peter Aldous and Therese Coffey, who are consistent advocates in Westminster.
During our discussion (on 14th August), Simon Gray championed the importance of the region:
“Today nearly 4GW of offshore wind power is operational off the region, accounting for 52 per cent of the UK’s current 7.5GW installed capacity, with potential to reach 14.5GW by 2030.”
£11 billion has been invested in the region’s offshore wind to date, providing 971 turbines, with a further £22 billion required to complete the build-out.
According to a recent report, Norfolk & Suffolk Offshore Wind Cluster, funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP):
“The East of England has become the UK’s epicentre for energy generation, with its unique mix of renewable energy, in particular, offshore wind, gas and nuclear energy production. The flourishing offshore wind cluster is establishing itself as the centre of gravity for the market, with more installed capacity than any other UK region.”
This extraordinary, unrecognised, legacy goes back over five decades, with energy from the Southern North Sea’s (SNS) oil and gas reserves, and nuclear power at Sizewell, gathering momentum in the last fifteen years, whilst pioneering renewables at Scroby Sands. The area’s unique combination of predominantly shallow water, favourable seabed conditions for foundation, and strong wind speeds, also benefits from its close proximity to UK and European ports and international airports.
To realise Government ambitions to be carbon-neutral by 2050, old oil and gas platforms are being decommissioned. “Costs are estimated at £35-70 billion to decommission, plug and abandon wells, preventing release of gas into the atmosphere,” explains Gray, who is concerned that Government thinking is not joined up, and warning against ripping up the infrastructure, leaving a valuable asset inaccessible.
“The process should be managed to optimise current facilities. The Scottish Government created a decommissioning fund, and the Dutch Government introduced decommissioning facilities at its state-owned ports, but we don’t see the same level of investment in England because the ports are privatised, which makes it difficult to persuade shareholders to invest in infrastructure ahead of the actual demand.
“As we speak today (Aug 14th) 51 per cent of electricity is coming from gas and there are still large gas reserves in the South North Sea, with anything up to 50 per cent of the nation’s gas supply processed at Bacton in Norfolk. This facility could be used to bring in Hydrogen as a fuel and / or use the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage, with pipelines from industry in London and the South East. Yet Ofgem is telling business to stop investing, so pension funds and the Church are redirecting funds elsewhere.”
Today wind is providing just 12 per cent of electricity and nuclear 15 per cent, with coal reduced to just 2.4 per cent, so there is a long way to go before UK needs can be met sustainably:
“We have a South North Sea regeneration group examining options: excess wind is currently not used, and solar power relies on the weather, but producing hydrogen could become highly cost-effective if transported along existing oil/gas pipelines.”
There is also potential to develop solar farms and onshore wind for community generation, rather than downloading energy from miles away. Local communities would be more likely to accept such developments if they benefited from lower energy bills or part ownership of the facilities.
The region is awaiting the next round of offshore wind consents, with the largest manufacturer, Siemens, considering the level of its future investment. Whilst the Netherlands is developing a ‘SNS national grid system’, which offshore developers will just plug into, the UK currently is not, which means that developers’ costs are much higher, budgeting on a project by project basis, including creating their own dedicated grid connection, rather than taking a holistic overview. “Ministers should review this policy to increase affordability, and speed up delivery,” Gray observes.
The National Grid infrastructure for windfarm output reaching land also lacks co-ordination, although the Eastern Region is at the forefront of the industry, “we are the trailblazers, and the next generation of offshore turbines provides more energy from each footprint than previously.” Floating platforms are being trialled off Scotland, “with the control room located in Great Yarmouth alongside the dudgeon wind farm control facility!”
As the debate about nuclear continues, Gray emphasises its contribution over the last 50 years, and the need for it to remain part of the energy mix with Sizewell C, employing a highly skilled workforce. Local authorities are closely involved in the negotiations, especially Planning and transport issues for the ten year project.
“The East of England is perceived to be affluent, as a net contributor to the Treasury, yet the region has been deprived of the major infrastructure investment desperately needed for further economic expansion by successive governments.
“During the recent Tory leadership race, the new Chancellor, Sajid Javid, talked of creating a £100 billion national infrastructure fund. Each £1 invested here to improve road, rail and airport connections, as well as ports, will give a better, and faster, return than elsewhere.”
Another concern is the lack of skills, “we have areas of deprivation, especially in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, which are more challenging than other areas, with two or three generations of unemployed as fishing and other post-industrial industries declined. Those jobs need to be replaced, and retained in the region, which means investing in skills as well as infrastructure.”
So, Gray is pleased that the Chancellor is now promising more money for education. He despairs at the low educational attainment in these deprived locations:
“We need £500,000 to develop skills and training. We have some of the worst performing schools, but it’s not easy to reach out to all the schools to inspire students about the opportunities across our local energy industries. We are told that schools have to stick to the curriculum, and when we’ve arranged after-school events with employers, students and their parents can struggle to attend due to a lack of transport infrastructure to get them there.
“Young people understand technology and we need to get them out of the unemployment spiral, to motivate them, and that means reaching out to these isolated communities, engage with them and help them to aspire.” Discussions are in hand with Suffolk County Council, the education authority, and the district council, to increase awareness of the range of potential lifetime careers across energy and the supply chain.
Some progress is, however, being made. Supported by NALEP and employers, an offshore wind training centre has been established at Great Yarmouth and EEEGR’s Skills for Energy programme is a conduit between employers, schools, colleges and universities, encouraging people to come to the industry locally and from outside the region to stay and invest in the local economy. An £11.3 million new-build All Energy Skills Centre opens at East Coast College’s Lowestoft Campus in October, providing multi-functional flexible training across the industry, including marine training facilities:
“We worked with employees, the local authorities, Job Centres and other stakeholders to explain the opportunities and about 100 recruits have now passed through the system.
“The University of East Anglia (UEA) has a School of Climate Change, working with the University of Suffolk, “We have the BSc, MSc MEeng and BEng energy engineering courses at UEA which are wonderful; however, we are really keen to encourage the formation of a School of Engineering at UEA, specialising in Energy.”
With all that’s going on, Gray once again emphasises the need for a further injection of cash, including to kick-start graduate apprenticeship schemes, complementing the Ogden Trust Coastal Internship programme, which pays students for four week projects during the summer holidays.
He would also like to see the various energy providers working more closely, sharing expertise and vessels servicing the platforms and turbines; “an uber-style booking system transferring workers and equipment from site to site is just one way to improve efficiency, and reduce costs.”
To maximise the estimated £60 billion investment in the Eastern Region’s energy industries over the next twenty years, including in nuclear, “we need to see more focus on partnership working across national and local government, education and the companies delivering these essential services. We are starting to see the sectors working together and we need to encourage and reward joint working.”
To enhance integration, co-operation, and expansion, an All Energy Industry Council is underway to boost trade, investment and growth within the industry and deliver the National Industrial Strategy and Sector Deals. In the meantime, Gray looks forward to meeting the new Energy Minister, inviting him to attend the Offshore Wind Week – East Anglia event on November 21 and 22 in the hope that he will be in post for longer than weeks or months.