It is mid-morning in Liverpool and a drizzle is falling on a sprawling shipyard near the city where a slice of British industrial history is being made.
Huge piles of kit have been shipped here for the Gwynt y Môr wind farm being built eight miles off the coast, one of 16 wind parks dotted around UK seas that have quietly turned Britain into the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind over the past decade.
Thanks to its shallow waters, strong winds and green energy subsidies, Britain is now, as David Cameron, the prime minister, told the Conservative party conference on Wednesday, “number one in the world for offshore wind”.
The UK has more offshore wind capacity than the rest of the world combined – 2.7 gigawatts compared with a global total of under 5GW. But there is a catch. The UK may have the farms, but the Germans and Danes are building them, a fact Mr Cameron neglected to mention.
This is very evident at the Gwynt y Môr project, which is being developed by the renewable power division of Germany’s RWE energy company.
“Those are from Germany,” says Toby Edmonds, Gwynt y Môr project director, pointing to an enormous stack of steel tubes, or “monopile” turbine foundations soon to be driven into the seabed.
“So are those,” he adds, as we pass another vast pile of steel structures, this time bright yellow painted “transition pieces” that fit over the monopile foundations and act as a base for the turbines.
The 160 wind turbines due to go in at Gwynt y Môr, are being built by Germany’s Siemens, the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine
supplier, whose main wind factories are in Denmark.
More than half of the 796 turbines already embedded in UK waters have come from Siemens and around a third from Denmark’s
Vestas. The rest came from RePower, a German subsidiary of India’s Suzlon group.
Among the developers, big Danish, German, Swedish and Norwegian energy companies such as Dong, Vattenfall, RWE, Eon and Statkraft have a combined market share of more than 70 per cent while the UK’s Centrica and SSE together have less than 20 per cent.
The nationality of the developers may not matter that much, but the fact that so much equipment is being built abroad is a growing concern.
For all its offshore wind supremacy the UK had only generated 3,200 jobs in the sector by 2011, according to the wind industry trade group, RenewableUK.
“The brutal truth is that UK energy consumers have been paying substantial subsidies to import a large amount of costly, foreign-made equipment in a recession,” says Ian Temperton, head of advisory at Climate Change Capital, a London-based investment manager. “Any serious investor has to ask if this can really be a sustainable situation.”;
Part of the problem is offshore wind is hugely expensive. Until 2005, farms were built in shallower waters and cost about £1.5m per megawatt. But as they started to be built further out to sea in deeper waters, and as commodity prices rose, costs increased to about £3m per MW.
RenewableUK estimates £8bn was spent getting the first 2.7GW of offshore wind power up and running – less than one-fifth the
capacity that the UK has been aiming to build to meet its share of European Union targets that require it to acquire 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The industry is trying hard to drive down costs, but until they do, investors in a weak eurozone economy plagued by tight credit conditions are understandably wary.
On top of that, the UK is in the throes of reshaping its renewable energy financial incentives just as George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, is questioning the cost of wind power and enthusiastically embracing gas generation.
“That knocks confidence,” says Paul Coffey, chief operating officer at RWE Innogy, the RWE division building Gwynt y Môr.
“If George Osborne stands up and says ‘I’m not sure we should be spending money on renewables; I think gas may be more interesting’, I can guarantee we will get a call from RWE asking ‘Is the UK government really serious about renewables?’ ”;
If developers are hesitant, that makes it hard for turbine suppliers to commit to building new plants abroad.
At least half a dozen turbine makers have been looking at building new factories in the UK for some time, including Siemens and Vestas, but none has taken a final investment decision.
But just across the channel, France’s Alstom has gone a big step further.
In April, it said it would build four new wind turbine factories in its home country, creating 1,000 direct and 4,000 indirect jobs, even though France barely has an offshore wind industry and Alstom is better known for building trains than windmills.
France awarded four projects earlier this year to consortiums chosen partly for their ability to establish local supply chains – a condition UK developers have not faced.
Alstom teamed up with France’s EDF, which won three projects. Alstom says that guaranteed it turbine orders worth more than €2bn over several years, making the decision to build four factories relatively simple.
Such a strategy is not without risks. “The French were explicit about wanting to support a local supply chain,” says Aris Karcanias of Navigant’s BTM wind consultancy. “But the risk in this tender structure is that it locks you into a single turbine supplier strategy with an unproven technology that is still at the prototype stage.”;
Still, for a UK offshore wind industry eager for its local job numbers to start matching its global stature, it is the sort of risk some may find increasingly attractive.
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