Whining oil companies and MoD blocking windfarms – not acceptable

Posted on 3 September 2012

Opinion of Jeremy Creswell, Editor of Press & Journal Energy


OK, time to speak out; I’ve had enough of the moaning that’s going on in and around Aberdeen regarding renewable energy. And I’m becoming increasingly irritated at the Ministry of Defence, which has so far attempted to block 30 or so wind projects in the north-east corner and many more UK-wide.

First of all, are we looking to build a more sustainable, lower carbon future in Britain or are we not?

The assumption has to be yes. Despite massive inconsistencies, that has been the broad thrust of UK Government policy for some years though it is vitally important to recognise and capitalise on that still considerable strategic national resource . . . North Sea oil and gas.

The Press and Journal’s readership are of course very familiar with Aberdeen’s status as the Oil & Gas Capital of Europe; less so the self-styled Energy Capital of Europe, a title that has become increasingly used over the past decade as renewable energies have gradually gained local traction. I personally have a vested interest in that process, as many of you know.

I’m not going to trot out the numbers; domestic opportunities in both are massive . . . £-billions worth of investment in new projects and in maintaining production infrastructure over the next several decades.

However, what we’re talking about for the North Sea is an “Indian summer” of opportunities . . . a modest boom with some very respectable projects at its core. Unless of course someone comes up with success of the scale of Lundin/Statoil’s still very fresh multi-billion barrels Johan Sverdrup oil discovery,

Sooner or later . . . and it was to be about 2016 . . . the investment curves between oil and gas and maritime renewable are pretty much guaranteed to cross on the UK Continental Shelf.

With project slippages in both camps, those curves may not now cross until about 2017/2018. But cross they will, with the result that renewable will generate more business opportunities for relevant parts of the oil and gas supply chain than will domestic hydrocarbons. That is fact.

I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say that, but for relatively early successes with winning turbine jackets manufacturing contracts and as a result one of the power utilities buying into the company, the Fife offshore fabrication yard BiFab might, just might not exist today, so damaging Scotland and the wider UK’s ability to compete in the large offshore structures market.

As things stand today, not only has BiFab’s MD, John Robertson, made an early success out of UK maritime renewables, the yard has come storming back in oil and gas with some excellent production platform contracts bagged in recent weeks. Robertson’s example is to be applauded.

So, when I hear about oil companies whining about renewables and saying that Aberdeen should concentrate on oil and gas . . . stick to what they reckon is the city’s knitting . . . that makes my blood boil.

How dare they presume to tie the city and its region down in such a manner. The economy here is dangerously narrow and has become increasingly so over the past several decades.

And how dare they dictate to their supply chain.

I’ve said this before; maritime renewables represent a complementary business opportunity for companies that care to engage. And it pleases me that engineering houses and subsea contractors and survey companies and many others are doing just that.

Of course one hears the same old weary whinges. Not enough skilled people. Endemic poaching between companies, and so-forth. Competition from renewables could force up prices.

Happily, the ability of an operator to snap its fingers and call the shots is curtailed. It is less easy to force the supply chain to kowtow than was perhaps the case a decade ago.

And to think that diversification was written into the 10-year strategy mapped out under the crisis-driven Oil & Gas Industry Task Force of 13 years ago.

Now let me train my guns on the MOD . . . the Ministry of Defence which, UK-wide, is holding a great many wind projects by the throat. To think that there are today some 30 proposed wind projects in the Scottish north-east under threat because of MOD’s now elderly Buchan Radar facility.

Britain has a network of MOD radar stations that stem from the Cold War of the 1950s through to the 1989s. They were designed to overlap, so that if one station went down, coverage could/would be picked up by the neighbour.

One wonders how much longer any of them will last. It has reached the point where systems have either to be replaced or shut down.

Meanwhile, I need hardly remind that our armed forces are being massively pruned in the name of UK Government budget cuts. This includes chopping Kinloss, where the Royal Air Force ensign was lowered for the last time on July 26.

Kinloss airbase was deemed surplus to requirements after ministers took the decision last year to scrap the £4billion fleet of Nimrod MRA4 planes, as part of deep defence cuts.

OK, I recognise that MOD has attempted to mitigate local economic damage by deciding to billet army units there. But it needs to do more . . . much more . . . to enable, even encourage local economic development.

Given the London and Holyrood commitments to renewable energy, MOD must be made to understand that blocking wind projects is not acceptable.

There needs to be a concerted effort to modify radar systems (they’re mostly ancient anyway) and to stop holding wind developers to ransom by getting them to stump up for a radar patch here, another there, etcetera.

Defence of the realm is a strategic issue; so too is sustainable energy. MOD needs to understand that.

And, in Aberdeen, those who think that the city can get by as just an oil and gas town need to open their minds.