Much as it has done with oil and gas, the North-east of Scotland is pioneering the path to a low-carbon energy system

Through panoramic windows facing the North Sea, visitors to Aberdeen’s W-Zero-1 building can on a clear day see the future of the UK’s energy system.

On the horizon are the six turbines of the Kincardine offshore wind farm.

Offshore wind farms are an increasingly familiar sight off the shores of Scotland but what sets this one apart is that the turbines are not fixed to the sea bottom; they float.

As Maggie McGinlay, chief executive of ETZ, the private sectorled and not-for-profit company delivering the Energy Transition Zone, which has developed the building with the view, observed, it is the biggest of its kind in the world.

“It’s fantastic when we bring investors here to say that’s the world’s largest grid-connected floating offshore wind farm. That is what the future is about.”

Scotland is the world leader when it comes to plans for floating offshore wind.

To put this in context, there is currently just over 3GW of operational offshore wind production in Scottish waters, the largest of which are Moray East and Seagreen 1. The plan is to install operations that have 15 times more capacity, including SSE’s giant Berwick Bank, which is awaiting imminent approval, and projects far out to sea that will start being built during the next ten years.

Of the 45GW of Scotland’s ambition for offshore wind, 25GW will come from floating turbines.

But as the Kincardine wind farm has proved – having faced the expensive prospect of towing a broken turbine to Rotterdam for maintenance – floating power faces some fierce headwinds.

By freeing turbines from being attached to the seabed, wind farms can be bigger and operate in further, deeper water. But they also face extremely harsh conditions while attached in an array of hundreds of turbines and connected to the beach with high voltage cable that must bend, stretch and twist.

Beneath the water’s surface is where fundamental challenges lie. The sort of cables, anchors and moorings required to connect and hold the turbines in place either do not yet exist or are in very short supply.

McGinlay and her cohorts are banking on the fact that the technology and skills needed to overcome the challenges of building offshore wind – as well as other new and emerging forms of energy production – already exist in North Sea operations.

“Part of our remit is to support the supply chain across the North-east of Scotland, as part of the managed energy transition, to ensure those companies that have been serving the oil and gas industry both within the UK and globally are supported with their own transition journey so that they can equally play a major role as we move into offshore wind, hydrogen and CCUS (carbon capture, usage and storage),” said McGinlay.

W-Zero-1 is just the start of ETZ’s plans. The building has reached capacity with the opening of the Floating Offshore Wind Innovation Centre, where anchors and moorings will be developed and cables will be tested. The £9 million operation is a joint venture between ETZ and Offshore Energy Catapult, the governmentbacked body leading the UK’s push to net zero.

ETZ is the brainchild of billionaire industrialist Sir Ian Wood. A not-for-profit development agency, it secured £53 million in government support from north and south of the Border. Its aim is to pave the way for the arrival of the low carbon energy industry and anchor it in the North-east of Scotland, where offshore energy has been the lifeblood of the economy for 50 years.

The organisation is creating a base on decaying industrial estates largely built in the days of 1970s oil boom in the districts of Altens and East Tullos.

ETZ is working with oil major Shell to redevelop the site of its former North Sea headquarters after the firm relocated its slimmed-down operation to new offices in the city centre.

Its distinctive 1973-built glass and concrete building in Tullos will be demolished to make way for a new development.

BP is also bringing hydrogen projects to the ETZ area. It has a partnership with Aberdeen City Council to develop a £215 million ‘green’ hydrogen production and storage facility. The plans include placing solar panels on the adjacent Ness landfill site which overlooks the city’s new South Harbour as well as connecting BP’s floating offshore wind project, Flora.

Meanwhile construction is also progressing on other projects, including a former dairy that was acquired by ETZ and will become an energy transition skills hub in partnership with North East Scotland College, opening next year.

Crucially, a site close to the £415 million South Harbour has been earmarked for industrial use – a plan which is opposed by local residents and campaign groups keen to defend one of the area’s last green spaces. ETZ argues it will provide essential quayside space, likely to be used for anchors or moorings that will need to be manufactured close to where they will be shipped out.

The prospect of offshore wind, along with hydrogen production and other technologies, couldn’t come at a better time for the Northeast of Scotland as its powerhouse oil and gas industry declines.

In Aberdeen there is dismay that politicians in Holyrood and Westminster are keener on squeezing the last pips of the UK energy industry in the form of windfall taxes just when the need for investment in offshore wind is starting to look critical.

McGinley said: “The reality is a lot of the investment in green energy will be driven by the big energy companies such as BP, Shell, Equinor and Total and others. We need them to continue to invest in the UK and Scotland if we are going to get them to invest in low carbon and green energy because they can go anywhere in the world. We need to keep them here.”

W-Zero-1 officially opened its doors last year and is now at full capacity having attracted several firms that are at the forefront of Scotland’s transition to low-carbon energy.

HonuWorx is a four-year-old marine robotics technology firm. It is targeting upwards of £30 million investment to support its growth plans over the next two to three years.

Its chief executive, Lee Wilson, describes its flagship product, an uncrewed submersible mothership, as the “SpaceX of subsea”.

He describes how he has come full circle since his fastgrowing company set up in the facility, explaining that his own career as a graduate engineer started less than a mile away in East Tullos 20-odd years ago.

HonuWorx is also grappling with the transition from oil and gas industry customers and anticipating work in the offshore wind industry.

Wilson said: “It’s the oil and gas projects that can take the financial risk and make the investment in deploying those technologies first, with the recognition that many of the same techniques and disciplines required to operate on an oil platform 100 metres below water will be required on a floating offshore wind farm – and there is going to be more volume of infrastructure.”

Another W-Zero-1 resident is Trojan Energy, which has developed a patented electric vehicle charging system.

The Trojan charging system solves the problem faced by people who want EVs but don’t have a driveway in which to install their own charging system. The Trojan charger is placed underground and sits flush with the pavement, with no street clutter.

The firm has installed around 1,000 charge points in London and has attracted investment of £43 million to date. Chief executive Ian Mackenzie expects to raise between £50 and £100 million in coming years. It has grown from a small team of about 20 two years ago and expects to employ 100 by next year.

Mackenzie credits his background as a subsea engineer for the skills and knowledge used to solve the difficulties of a charging system that can sit in the ground while working robustly in all weathers.

He said: “We’ve got this vertical charge point in the street – how does water and grit not get into that? It is the knowhow from making subsea connections that is allowing us to use those skills and make those connections.”