East positions itself at centre of UK’s green energy revolution

A Vattenfall worker on maintenance duty

A worker making his way up the side of a wind turbine in the North Sea - Credit: Vattenfall

It’s hard to overstate the UK’s need to ditch carbon-emitting energy and move wholeheartedly into a zero carbon future.

COP26 has provided a stark reminder that the climate crisis is upon us now — not at a future point down the road.

This reality has been behind a host of green energy projects around the country — not least in the East of England where a number of low carbon technologies have — by chance — converged.

The southern North Sea has proved ideal territory for wind farm developers — its shallow waters and the make-up of its sea bed providing near-perfect conditions for wind turbine arrays. 

These have defied the early critics by producing significantly more electricity — and much more cheaply — than its early detractors had predicted.

As a result, wind farms have been going up thick and fast around the Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex coastline — with more in the pipeline.

But low carbon energy has existed in the region over a much longer time period. Work started on Sizewell A nuclear power plant in 1961, and it was completed around 1966. It eventually shut down in 2006 — some 40 years later — but its sister plant, Sizewell B, which was built between 1987 and 1995, still produces electricity today. A decision on owner EDF’s proposed Sizewell C is expected in spring 2022.

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The plans for a new nuclear plant have proved highly controversial, but the mood music from the Boris Johnson administration as decision time approaches has been very positive — leading many to believe that it will more than likely become a reality.

Then there’s hydrogen. There are arguments over “blue” hydrogen — created using fossil fuels — versus clean “green” hydrogen and a number of other hydrogen-making options, but East Anglia is home to a very large gas facility at Bacton and energy experts believe that this could be converted into a hydrogen hub of the future. Bacton gas terminal has played a big role in meeting the UK’s energy needs for many years, and lies close to natural gas fields of the Southern North Sea.

Hydrogen is seen as the easiest replacement option for carbon-emitting natural gas — although its molecules are smaller meaning that gas pipework and infrastructure will need to be converted and upgraded.

At the same time, Freeport East at Felixstowe-Harwich — announced this year as one of the UK’s first post-Brexit freeports — is looking at how it can become a net-zero port and energy hub for the region as part of a project being developed jointly between the Port of Felixstowe, Cranfield University, Sizewell C and EDF.

Simon Gray, executive director of policy and external affairs at EEEGR is feeling very positive about the green energy sector in East Anglia. He feels it has a very bright future ahead of it — but admits he harbours some fears that this could yet be blown off course if the public doesn’t get behind it and campaign groups gain traction.

The latest of these is an MP-led one — Off Shore Electricity Grid Task Force (OffSET) — a group chaired by Harwich MP Bernard Jenkin which also includes East Anglian MPs Jerome Mayhew, James Cartlidge, Therese Coffey and Duncan Baker. This wants to see an offshore transmission system bringing the electrical supply to a central point offshore to be brought to land at an as-yet undesignated point. The current system — devised by the government — is that electricity supplies from East Anglia’s wind farms head along cable corridors to be connected to the grid via a series of sub-stations along the coast. There are currently five of these, but further wind farm proposals could add another eight or more.

Mr Gray believes that it is far too late to change course now for the next wave of wind farms in the pipeline off the coast and that time is of the essence. It’s the “better of two evils”, he reasons.

“We can’t wait for this grid to be built,” he says. It will be impossible to meet the government’s own targets if the campaign group gets its way, he adds. “If we don’t have these projects go ahead we are going to see some big implications for this region.” 

The East Anglian coastline contains around 47% of the entire UK wind energy fleet — and currently hosts 4.6GW of the UK’s 10.4GW total installed capacity. With the right investment, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) says it could provide up to 16.4GW (41%) of the UK government’s 40GW target by 2030. This could create more than 6,000 well-paid skilled jobs by 2032.

Vattenfall’s Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas offshore wind farms — scheduled to come online in the mid-2020s — will together have an installed capacity of 3.6GW and produce enough electricity to power 3.9m homes in the UK.

The New Anglia Clean Growth Taskforce was launched in May this year to bring together entrepreneurs, academics and public sector partners to champion projects to support recovery in the region.

Its chairman, Pete Joyner, says the region’s “dynamic and collaborative” energy ecosystem is helping to attract international investment in the onshore and offshore renewables sector.

This will generate an estimated £138bn of capital investment in low carbon power generation projects in this region by 2050. 

“We are ideally positioned to exploit the coming opportunities presented by offshore wind, hydrogen and other forms of clean energy, and help the government deliver on its target to reach net zero by 2050,” he says.

“The planned Freeport East Hydrogen Hub will be one of the world’s most exciting and innovative nuclear, hydrogen, maritime and transport decarbonisation schemes. Bacton Gas Terminal is already a major infrastructure asset and energy hub which provides a gateway for access of one third of total gas to the British market, and there is scope for the site to be developed into a major innovation and demonstration project new energy, including hydrogen.

“Meanwhile, our region is leading the way in the development of electric vehicle technologies, green marine developments and other decarbonising projects that will help address the climate emergency which is focusing minds at COP26.”