It’s the country’s largest wind turbine blade factory, and it’s running at full speed: In Hull, in the industrial north of England, Spanish-German manufacturer Siemens-Gamesa is carrying out expansion work to cope with exploding growth demands.
The port city at the mouth of the Humber was once known for its thriving fishing industry. It is now reshaping the fortunes of renewable energy, fueled by the country’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2050.
In the shop, Carl Jackson, 56, applies exterior coatings and paints to wind turbine blades. “We are doing our part to bring cleaner and cheaper energy to everyone,” he told AFP.
“Wind energy will be an important part of the future” and for Hull it has “greatly boosted employment and economic development”, added the industrial painter who joined the company six years ago.
Wind power is on the rise in Britain as it seeks to wean itself off its reliance on natural gas, which is driving up energy bills and forcing London to spend billions of pounds in aid this winter at its most modest.
Some 1,500 blades have been rolled off the production line since 2016, and the giant blades are 81 meters long, roughly the wingspan of an Airbus A380.
– One in four wind turbines –
Siemens Gamesa will open a factory in Le Havre, France in March.
If it were to expand in Hull, it would be to build larger blades, 100 metres long: one revolution could power an average-sized house for two days.
At the 1,000-employee factory, workers are busy fixing balsa wood, fiberglass and resin into giant moulds that will soon produce blades that can withstand strong North Sea winds.
According to data from European lobby group WindEurope from 2020, a quarter of the UK’s electricity is already generated by wind, surpassing the European average (16%) and France (9%).
Andy Sykes, the plant’s director, said the share of wind energy “will continue to grow”, and according to him, the UK must reduce carbon emissions while reducing its reliance on energy imports.
In fact, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who hosted the world climate summit COP26 in Scotland in November, said he wanted to make his country the “Saudi Arabia of the wind”.
In January, Scottish authorities awarded concessions to 17 offshore wind projects undertaken by energy giants, which will boost UK production capacity.
– Industrial Emissions –
But Hull didn’t stop with wind turbines.
The city is adding renewable energy projects: biofuels, green hydrogen, carbon capture, and solar and tidal power.
If the community cares about reducing carbon emissions, it’s because the Humber Estuary region accounts for 40% of UK industrial emissions, particularly the cement, gas, oil, petrochemical and steel industries.
“Decarbonisation of the Hull region is crucial” if the UK is to become carbon neutral, the city council climate manager Martin Budd concluded to AFP. Wind turbine blade factories “are a key factor in making this happen”.
Hull was also “the second most flood-prone city after London”, Mr Budd recalled. He insists that “the city’s survival depends” on its commitment to climate change.
The UK wants to generate a third of its electricity from wind by 2030.
But the issue of storage is crucial, Nick Cowan, emeritus professor of physics at Newcastle University, warns that wind or solar power is weather dependent.
“Until we have the possibility to store energy in the form of alternatives such as hydrogen or ammonia, we will not be better connected to the grids of our European neighbours (…) and will still need natural gas,” he said.