The pilot of the nearly 80ft workboat revved its powerful engines, pinning the bow against the base of a towering wind turbine in the gentle North Sea. Three men in yellow and orange outfits took a step on metal rungs and began to slowly scale the nearly 300ft structure, past the huge blades that help send electricity to Scotland.
It was a normal working day for these employees and contractors of a Scottish utility, SSE, and its partners, who operate the vast Beatrice wind farm off the northern tip of Britain.
Their job is to go from turbine to turbine – Beatrice has 84 spread over 50 square miles of blue water – servicing the mighty machines. Teams can usually maintain two or three per day.
It’s grueling work – up to 12 hours a day on the water – but it has its rewards. David Larter, one of the men who climbed the tower, showed a video he made on his phone as he had lunch one day from a perch high above the North Sea: a minke whale rolling gently in the water under the tower. “We were very lucky that day,” he said.
Like others around Wick, a former fishing port where wind farm operations are based, Mr Larter also considers himself lucky to have signed with a company that is growing as Europe seeks to replace oil and gas, whose production has been a mainstay of this part of Scotland, along with cleaner energy.
“This industry is the future, isn’t it,” he said.
Around the world, governments and developers are pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into large offshore wind farms like Beatrice to meet climate change goals.
These initiatives are attractive to investors and legislators because they produce massive amounts of clean energy and can be placed far enough from shore to be largely out of sight. Britain already generates more than 10% of its electricity from offshore wind, and on the same gust days, as November 2, the wind produces more than half. As energy security becomes a critical issue in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the country aspires to nearly quadruple its offshore capacity over the next decade.
Around the Moray Firth, a triangular indentation in the North Sea off Wick, there is ample evidence of cleaner energy replacing fossil fuels. The Beatrice wind farm takes its name from a nearby offshore oil field that has run out and will be gradually dismantled. (The oilfield is named after a wife of T. Boone Pickens, the American oilman, whose company developed Beatrice.)
Just to the southwest is another port, Nigg, where Global Energy Group recently spent 120 million pounds (about $137 million) to reinforce the quays so it could load the huge offshore wind turbine components onto ships.
Although limited supplies of natural gas have sent electricity bills skyrocketing over the past year, skepticism about the future of fossil fuels remains high in Britain and much of the UK. Europe, and the numbers tell a story of decline. After peaking in 2014, investment in oil and gas in Britain fell by around three-quarters to around £3.7bn last year, according to Offshore Energies UK, a group industrial. Jobs supported by the company fell by more than half in about a decade, to about 200,000.
Offshore wind farms like Beatrice make up some of the difference. Last year, investment in these facilities amounted to £6.7 billion, about double that of oil and gas. Even though companies that manufacture turbines are struggling financially due to supply chain bottlenecks, the offshore wind industry is booming. According to the Offshore Wind Industry Council, jobs in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms and their suppliers rose by around 16% last year to 31,000, around a third of them in Scotland.
The offshore wind industry, although growing rapidly, is still in its infancy and produces only a small fraction of the energy content of oil and gas extracted from the British North Sea. And due to the greater ability to automate the operation of marine facilities, it is not certain that they will fully replace the dwindling number of jobs in the oil and gas sector.
Yet the changes underway in this region of Scotland could mean there is still a future for people who work in oil and gas and the communities that depend on it.
Many people who honed their skills on the offshore oil rigs that dot the waters off Scotland find it relatively easy to transition into the wind industry. “What we have is a very ambidextrous community that will turn to whatever needs to be done,” said Willie Watt, a retired oil services executive and former chairman of the Wick Harbor Authority board.
Among those making the switch is Alan Paul, a Wick native who spent 28 years in the oil business and now manages Beatrice’s harborside control room. This is where technicians monitor turbine activity, using cameras mounted on the equipment and checking the performance of the giant machines on screens.
Eight of the nine operators have oil backgrounds, said Paul, 54. (Beatrice supports about 70 jobs, while about 1,400 people at SSE, the parent company, work in wind power.)
“Skills are very, very transferable,” he said.
Part of what caught Mr. Paul’s attention was his desire to escape the need to spend weeks away from home, missing weddings and vacations. He said these tensions, which are part of the life of an offshore worker, contributed to the collapse of his first marriage. He has since remarried.
“It meant I could have my own house every night,” he said of joining Beatrice in 2017.
Completed in 2019, the Beatrice turbines can generate enough electricity to power more than 400,000 homes, equivalent to around a sixth of Scotland’s total.
Béatrice also earns a lot of money. In the year to March 31, it recorded an operating profit of £218m on total revenue of £393m, or about £1 in operating profit for £2 revenue.
The presence of such an outsized company has been a boon to Wick, a town of about 7,000 whose heyday dates back more than a century, when small fishing craft covered its harbor. Beatrice paid to clean up the harbor area, including £20million to renovate two stone buildings to be used for the control center and the construction of docks for boats traveling to the farm. Beatrice’s owners have also provided £6million for local improvements like new lights around the harbor and wheelchairs for a beach.
“It’s really been a boost in terms of regeneration throughout the town,” said Raymond Bremner, the leader of the local Highland Council.
Beatrice, which cost £2.5billion to build, was Scotland’s first monster wind farm and paved the way for even bigger installations, some of them costing four times as much or even more .
At Nigg, cranes load yellow-painted turbine supports, called jackets, onto ships. (These stands were not made in Britain, but in China and elsewhere; British companies say they would like to make these parts locally but will have to become more cost competitive.) The equipment is for Seagreen, a £3 billion wind turbine. farm being built by SSE and TotalEnergies, the French giant. It will have almost twice the production capacity of Béatrice.
In an interview, Alistair Phillips-Davies, managing director of SSE, said that as they complete the wind farms, the company’s development teams move on to the next ones. “It’s good business for us – yes, we’re getting good returns,” he said.
Britain’s recently announced 45% windfall tax aimed at recouping profits from soaring electricity prices is unlikely to affect Beatrice because, like many recently built wind farms, it operates in the under a subsidy program that already caps income.
But Mr Phillips-Davies recently told the BBC that the tax would reduce the funds SSE has to invest and that the government should be careful not to undermine the UK wind boom.
“We’ve spent over a decade building one of the best places to invest in green energy, and we need to make sure it stays that way,” he said.
Despite the tax, the offshore wind industry appears destined to grow rapidly to meet the demands created by government plans to replace petrol and diesel cars with electric models, and natural gas heating with electric appliances or to hydrogen.
Crown Estate Scotland, for example, this year awarded tracts of seabed covering 2,700 square miles for wind leases to various companies including SSE, BP and Shell. Analysts estimate that the total investment in these projects, collectively known as Scotwind, could exceed $100 billion.
BP alone expects its offshore wind projects could support around 300 jobs at the company, helping it maintain a significant presence in Scotland, where it currently has around 900 employees. Richard Haydock, an oil industry veteran who now runs BP’s Scotwind program, said about half of new wind hires would come from fossil fuel jobs. Maintaining the large wind farm the company plans to build will require staff “quite comparable” to an offshore oil field, he said.
But the warm, family atmosphere that drew Mr. Paul to Beatrice may not always be possible for people working on some of the upcoming wind farms, which will be much further offshore.
Technicians will likely live on ships stationed at wind farms for two weeks and then trade with new crews. “It will be very similar to the pattern and lifestyle” of workers on offshore rigs, Mr Haydock said.
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