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Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult is ready for action

IT was more by luck than judicious planning that Andrew Jamieson, chief executive of the Glasgow-based Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (ORE), was available for interview on the day George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement.

The chancellor used the occasion to signal a change in government policy on renewables, confirming well-trailed reports that the focus of subsidies would shift from onshore to offshore wind power.

Mr Jamieson, an electrical engineer who spent 24 years with Scottish Power, including a spell heading its renewables policy, welcomed the additional support for the offshore power generation sector.

But he fears the strike price proposed by the government - in other words, how much it will pay utilities for the renewable energy they generate to help encourage investment in the sector - are on the low side. He suggested a price of £140 per megawatt hour (MWh) indicates a level of capacity the offshore power generation industry has still to realise.

Mr Jamieson said: "In offshore wind, it was recognised the government's proposals were too harsh, so they have increased it by £5 [from £130/MWh) - the price at which electricity will be purchased for offshore wind from around 2017/18.

"Essentially, what the government is trying to work out is, with economies of scale, once you have got a large industry, what should the price of electricity be, and the argument really was: "you have over-calculated, you have assumed scale is here before we can actually deliver at those prices.

"It will give the industry a better target to chase for 2017/18, but let's be clear, there will still be a downward pressure from government on all prices from renewables thereafter, which the industry has long recognised.

"We want to see more manufacturing, we want to see economies of scale, we want to see stronger value into the UK economy by having a lot more jobs into the sector. That's the big lock in thing for the value over many many decades. You have got to create the industry first of all for that to happen."

Helping to build that industry is where the Glasgow-based ORE Catapult comes in.

One of seven technology and innovation centres set up by the Technology Strategy board, and the only one fully based in Scotland, it brings industry and academia together to collaborate on projects which will ultimately deliver electricity from offshore wind, wave and tidal energy.

The catapult has been funded initially to the tune of £47 million by the UK government, but longer term the goal is for it to be equally backed by government, the private sector and other sources.

Compared with conventional sources of electricity, such as coal, nuclear and gas, the offshore renewables is still in the infancy of a life cycle.

Mr Jamieson concedes there is much work to be done before the cost of electricity created by offshore wind comes down.

But he is upbeat it can be done: "For renewables it is very early days. But what is quite clear is that if you focus hard enough and get the economies of scale and learn about what hasn't worked in the past - which is what conventional generation has done and that is what the Catapult is driving hugely - then you can focus on the cost base more readily and drive the cost a bit harder."

And there is good reason to be optimistic about the prospects for offshore wind in the UK. Mr Jamieson notes there is just under 4000 mega watts (MW) of capability installed, more than in German and Denmark, with targets to increase that by four to six times by 2020.

He explained: "In terms of the contribution into the electricity mix overall offshore wind will play an ever-increasing role. We have under the government's proposals the biggest programme for offshore wind in the world. So what I'm trying to do with the Catapult is make sure we capitalise on the benefits that first mover advantage would bring, especially on the technology development.

"It's not just about manufacturing, we are also looking at what I call the know-how. How do you design, build and operate these plants over many, many decades."

Building on the theme Mr Jamieson contends there is scope to develop a services industry for offshore wind in the UK comparable to that which supports the oil and gas sector in the north east.

He said: "Because we have got hundreds if not thousands of turbines to build in the UK, that becomes a very unique and service and skills opportunity in the UK. I often equate it to the oil and gas world for Aberdeen, for example. You have got lots of service companies there that can export there skills around the world to fix other project difficulties. With that know-how built in the UK with our first mover advantage, that is a huge economic opportunity for the UK."

Outlining his vision to establish it as "centre of deep technological expertise", Mr Jamieson notes that it differs from other innovation centres in that it will retain the skills in-house.

He is planning to have assembled a team of 40 by March and as many as 120 in the long run, with experts drawn from academia and engineers from industry on secondment.

The Catapult has an industry advisory board comprising 20 supply chain and utilities companies, providing a forum to discuss which projects and ideas should be taken forward, as well as input into the direction the Catapult is taking. Mr Jamieson said it also the Catapult to challenge the industry.

On the research side, an advisory body made up of ten UK universities allows industry to identify cutting edge solutions that can feed into services they are developing, while also helping academia tap into industry expertise. It can also aid with the commercial spin-out of ideas from the academic world.

Asked whether there was any potential conflict between the demands of the three main stakeholders - government, academia and industry - Mr Jamieson said the challenge historically has been one of a lack of "joined up thinking" between the three. He explained: "There are lots of very good initiatives and innovations that have been going on in the UK in renewables. We have also got a multiplicity of different initiatives and different bodies, so if you are an SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) with a bright new idea, who do you go and speak to? Where are the Yellow Pages you can look for the answer?

"What the Catapult does is afford an opportunity to bring those players into the mix more, bring the academics into the mix an I can say: "here's the directory". If I can't provide you with a solution then my colleagues in another institution can make that happen more readily."

Mr Jamieson, who has been bedding down the strategy since joining a year ago, said collaboration with other Catapults would also a feature of its work. He noted the Satellite Application Catapult can help its ORE counterpart through providing information on wind speed measurement, monitoring ocean fronts moving around the UK and physical movement in offshore wind stations.

As for its immediate priorities, Mr Jamieson said it had kicked off four major pilots which focus largely on standards, reliability and performance.

He explained: "Standards quite often sound boring and techie, but actually standards means industry at the highest levels agreeing how not just the machines are built, but how they are operated over many decades. It controls your costs.

"If you think of your smartphone, the industry would have jointly agreed what the code was for 4G. You then allow all the different manufacturers to design all the best services under a common standard. That's the kind of thing I want to see our industry adopt more and more of.

"It has happened continually over many decades in conventional generation. It is not fully deployed in offshore wind at this stage.

He added: "What it ultimately leads to, is when a financier comes to do the due diligence on a project to provide the developer with the funding, you want to iron out as many technical difficulties that might worry financiers if you can.

"It takes you into a world where you can actually attract cheaper finance. The financiers intrinsically understand more about the products they are being. It has happened in onshore wind and other renewables in the past."

Equally, the Catapult will be closely observing the innovations and technologies emerging from universities and small and medium-sized enterprises. That flow of innovation, he said, will flow better once the standards are finalised.

One criticism which has been aired in the context of onshore wind is that Scotland has not shared the economic benefits of turbine manufacturing, with most of the machines made - and the intellectual property rights held - overseas, notably in Denmark. But Mr Jamieson said Scotland can "absolutely" position itself as a manufacturer of offshore technology.

He noted that, while companies here might not be ready to supply the first wave of construction for projects around the UK coastline under the latest round of licences issued by the Crown Estate, the landowner for offshore wind, there is still time to get into the market in the years to come.

He also points to the trial of devices and technologies to capture wind and tidal energy in Scotland as a sign of the government's determination not to lose out with offshore wind as it did with onshore, though notes those are sectors very much in their infancy. Mr Jamieson said: "Wind power has grown beyond imagining in my lifetime, so why wouldn't that happen to wave and tidal. Tidal has got a bit of an edge on wave at the moment because the devices are intuitively similar to wind power.

"The physical resources for wave power are huge and outstrip that of tidal power, so that to me says it is worth sticking with, and continuing to invest [in] and explore wave power. Because that can become very dominating part of the electricity mix for countries that can sufficiently to deploy in future. I am not saying it is going to happen overnight, but it will happen. And the question always is, if the UK is not going to do it, you can pretty much say with certainty that someone else will."

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