Amid 2020’s pandemic it’s easy to forget that the UK announced a climate emergency last year with legally binding targets to become a ‘net-zero carbon’ society by 2050, if not sooner. Suffolk’s local government bodies also declared climate emergencies, with the county precariously on the front line as the UK’s driest and one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change.
With the mounting economic crisis due to COVID-19, together with impacts caused by Brexit, there are growing calls from governments and wider society to focus on a cleaner economic recovery, creating the kind of clean growth and environment that by 2040 we might even call part of our ‘zero carbon heritage’.
Our region, and in particular Suffolk, is leading the way in responding to these challenges thanks to natural geographic assets that have enabled the development of one of Europe’s most diverse clean energy clusters.
Challenge or Opportunity? It’s a matter of perspective
Without energy we go nowhere and achieve very little. We use it in transport to move goods, services and people; to generate the heat that we use in homes and businesses; and to power our lights, appliances, and the technology we all use every day. Where would your Smartphone be without a socket into which to plug it?
Increasingly we are learning how to use low carbon and renewable sources of energy such as sunlight, water, wind and crops to meet these needs. In late June 2020 clean energy was providing around 50% of the UK’s electricity needs, provided from wind, solar, and nuclear, with fossil fuels still providing the remaining balance. We have almost entirely turned our back on coal which is a very good thing.
Suffolk (and Norfolk) have been at the heart of the UK’s energy system for more than 50 years since natural gas was first discovered off our coast in the 1960s, and Sizewell A was built, coming online in 1966. Since those early days of offshore gas exploration, and nuclear power generation, the region has become a global hub for energy activity by building and maintaining a strong workforce, infrastructure and supply chain which is in demand around the world.
“East Anglia has become a rich and diverse ‘energy powerhouse’, and with almost all forms of power generation either on or immediately off its coastline”.
East Anglia has become a rich and diverse ‘energy powerhouse’, and with almost all forms of power generation either on or immediately off its coastline. We have a wide range of innovative businesses pushing the boundaries of new research into hydrogen, energy storage, capturing and storing CO2, and investing in novel clean energy solutions.
Research compiled by Opergy Limited, the consultancy group I lead, sets out the opportunity for new major energy and engineering projects across the region. This shows a staggering £59.4 billion forecast to be invested over the next 20 years.
It’s a significant opportunity with over half of that figure, around £30bn, to be invested in new offshore wind projects off the region’s coast, bringing a vast array of new contract opportunities for regional businesses.
And we also have Sizewell C – a game-changer for the region and the country, with potential to provide 7% of the UK’s electricity needs, and which will bring an enormous boost to the local economy providing highly skilled employment and contracts for a wide variety of local businesses.
Such growth and development of large-scale energy infrastructure projects are not without their challenges. We have seen concerns raised with grid connectivity, cable routes and substations for offshore wind farms, opposition to new nuclear power stations, and similar disagreements for solar, onshore wind, and battery storage projects.
However, the role of the energy sector is one of the most crucial for our future generations. It will enable the shift to net zero; underpin our economic recovery; and support our modern way of life. That is a grand statement, but it’s true. We need the stable power of technologies such as nuclear and large-scale storage to balance the intermittency of renewables.
At the heart of the sector
East Anglia is already a major generator of power, with over the half of the UK’s operational fleet of offshore wind farms powering more than 12% of UK homes; the Bacton gas terminal providing around 30% of the UK’s gas needs; and the Sizewell B power station providing power to around 8% of UK homes in 2018 alone.
“We have the potential in future to provide enough power equivalent to 58% of the UK’s homes”.
Suffolk and Norfolk are quite literally powering Britain. We provide power to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’; and fuel to drive the ‘Midlands Engine’; and we have the potential in future to provide enough power equivalent to 58% of the UK’s homes.
But this is only where the opportunity begins.
East Anglia is a region rich with talent and innovation. Our people and businesses are developing novel technologies and solutions across food production, digital platforms, and clean energy systems that directly address the challenge of net zero emissions.
Whether it is sustainable materials for new housing and construction; heat-pumps and battery storage solutions for retrofitting residential and commercial properties; rolling out ultra-low emission and electric transport solutions with rapid charging infrastructure; or using large-scale offshore renewables combined with reusing parts of the gas pipeline network to produce fresh water or hydrogen, supporting sustainable agriculture and food production for the future.
What is missing, in my view, is an integrated and joined-up ‘whole systems approach’ to energy infrastructure, joining up the transmission and distribution systems, effectively connecting nationally significant and locally important projects which directly support local communities.
In Leiston, we have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this integrated vision, building on the ‘Sizewell Clean Energy Hub’ concept.
A Clean Energy Hub could see novel and local uses for power and heat from Sizewell to produce green hydrogen for local buses, HGVs, and cars. Charging battery storage infrastructure to support electric vehicles. Powering a low-carbon data hub for the future digital and tech sectors, potentially joining up with Adastral Park a few miles away, and delivering both sustainable power and heat to the local community.
“Connecting future offshore projects to grid still requires some innovative thinking and likely changes in national legislation and regulation”.
What about an offshore ring main? Well, connecting future offshore projects to grid still requires some innovative thinking and likely changes in national legislation and regulation. There could be options to explore collaborative infrastructure as part of a wider energy hub, providing flexible outputs for power, heating, transport, and clean water.
The last word…
It’s pretty clear that clean energy provides opportunities for businesses and organisations of all sizes and in every industry, but also significant opportunities for communities.
Energy – both its generation and its use – is arguably one of the most important industries in helping to drive down emissions, delivering more clean power, which will impact on every person, every home, and every business, and it is on us all to take action.
As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life”.
Johnathan Reynolds, Managing Director, Opergy Ltd.
Johnathan is Managing Director of Opergy Ltd., a clean growth focussed consulting group delivering strategy, innovation, and finance solutions to businesses and organisations looking for new opportunities for growth. He is Board Member of the New Anglia LEP; Chair of the New Anglia Innovation Board, and; Member of the Norfolk & Suffolk All-Energy Industry Council.