Aberdeen aspires to become the net zero energy capital of Europe and a globally recognised centre of excellence for renewable energy – but do we have the infrastructure in place for success?

What will be required and how far along the road are we to ensuring it is in place?

At the very heart of the effort to drive the city and shire’s ambitions is ETZ Ltd, a not-for-profit, private sector led company, funded by the UK and Scottish Governments and Opportunity North East.

Its mission is to accelerate the transition to net zero, support a green economic recovery and deliver jobs for the area and it is already attracting global attention and investment interest from Australia to Taiwan and from America to Japan.

ETZ’s Chief Executive is Maggie McGinlay, an expert in the energy sector and economic development.

She is optimistic that the unique strengths of the North-east, built on a platform of half a century of successful oil and gas exploration and production, will ensure success.

She explained that the area is one of the most attractive locations in Europe for investment in low carbon and net zero technologies and that the Energy Transition Zone being developed around the new Aberdeen South Harbour on the outskirts of the city will be at the core of the energy transition.

“It will be the catalyst for offshore renewables and production of green hydrogen, making a significant contribution to the net zero objective. The Energy Transition Zone will support 2,500 direct jobs, with a further 10,000 energy transition-related jobs.

“It will support all the new developments that are happening offshore and, in particular, any supply chain activity linked to the new Scotland licencing rounds with up to 25 gigawatts of potential offshore wind generation – and 70% of those new offshore wind sites are within 100 nautical miles of Aberdeen.”

She said that as well as shipping these would require onshore support including high value manufacturing for cabling, moorings and balance of plant activity linked to offshore wind. The sites will require operations and maintenance support and new technology will also be required to support the 14 GW potential for floating offshore wind.

“Floating wind is still pre-commercial and we don't know what some of those solutions will be in terms of how you get the cost down for floating wind,” she said. “That’s why we need investment in infrastructure related to test, demonstration and validation.”

Maggie said that Kincardine offshore windfarm, 15 miles off Aberdeen and one of the world’s largest floating wind sites, is helping to provide better understanding about how the technology works, how to get access to turbines for maintenance and how they all interact within an array.

“The next thing we are starting to see is how to deliver green hydrogen production at scale from these offshore wind locations and there is great interest in the ERM Dolphyn project, which is the first of its kind,” she said.

“They are looking to trial green hydrogen production from one of the Kincardine floating offshore wind turbines. There's still more to learn in terms of how you combine floating wind with green hydrogen production at scale offshore, so it requires a strong focus around the test, demonstration and validation.

“I think the energy crisis has really drawn attention to the need to accelerate green energy solutions and to look at what we need to do to get this happening at scale. But it is important to understand there aren't quick fixes.

“They need investment in terms of research, development, testing, deployment and access to funding. A co-ordinated approach by both governments and agencies in terms of upgrades to the grid infrastructure is essential for offshore wind as is an efficient and responsive planning environment.

“We need to think about the digital infrastructure needed to support these offshore developments which require investment in digital twinning, data analysis and remote operations for example. For the Energy Transition Zone, that's about providing land and the required infrastructure for new private sector investment linked to high value manufacturing. It's also about providing the necessary research and development infrastructure, understanding what skills are needed and to do all of this in a way that provides real tangible benefit to the community and also the supply chain."

She said that was why their first major project has been investment in the National Floating Wind Innovation Centre, a partnership between ETZ Ltd and ORE Catapult, the UK’s leading innovation centre for offshore renewable energy.

“That’s about providing a physical innovation centre where companies can come and test their technology and validate its performance before it goes offshore. It will be about helping anyone involved in the floating wind industry to access the necessary expertise and know-how. Some learnings will come from fixed wind, some of it from subsea and some of it will be new, but it will ensure that we can really help accelerate the commercialisation of floating offshore wind.”

She said Aberdeen was in a unique position to capitalise on the opportunities the energy transition offers for a number of reasons. As well as the proximity to the offshore wind licence sites – many of which are in deeper water for which floating wind solutions are more appropriate – there is the oil and gas infrastructure which could be vital for decarbonisation of the industry.

Existing offshore aquifers and pipelines could be used for the storage of carbon providing the area with a unique point of differentiation.

In addition, there is St Fergus through which a third of the UK’s natural gas flows. There are two Acorn projects currently focused on St Fergus, one looking at carbon capture and storage by re-utilisation of the existing oil and gas infrastructure and one to transform the natural gas produced in the North Sea into blue hydrogen.

It will also be important to ensure the transport and communication networks in the North-east are of a standard to support the future developments.

Aberdeen is benefitting from a £59million investment by Cityfibre in full fibre across the city but transport links are not as far advanced.

Maggie said that improved access to the harbour linking to the successful AWPR was part of the Aberdeen City Region deal but with the new harbour now operational and the National Floating Wind Innovation Centre due to open early next year, it was important to accelerate that to maximise potential for business and for cruise passengers using the new Aberdeen South Harbour.

“It is important to ensure that, as the needs of the energy industry grow and change, the road infrastructure catches up.

“In terms of rail we have to look at continual investment in freight and what happens if, for example, over time we get hydrogen trains. We need to ensure that we're thinking through how we look at transport infrastructure needs, but obviously making sure we're doing that in the most energy efficient and sustainable way.

“Nestrans is examining what that future strategy needs to look like and working collaboratively with all the key partners. It takes a lot of joined up thinking to make sure that we're investing in the right way for the future.

“We also need to think about active travel. If we're thinking about sustainable transport that means cycle paths and improved walking networks. We need to consider how people can get to key work locations, using alternative modes of transport via improved bus routes for example.

“As we're approaching the master planning for the Energy Transition Zone, we're looking at the road transport links and having a better understanding of connectivity with the harbour. Sometimes materials arrive by boat, they're then manufactured or assembled and go straight offshore again, so you're minimising the amount of road transport.

“The ongoing investment in harbours that we are seeing is critical to support electrification and the new alternative fuels that are coming through.

“Priority has always been given to roads and car parking in the past. While we must be pragmatic and recognise that sustainable transport by cars is still an important part of getting around in this region given the rural environment, we do need to think more holistically about alternatives.”

Fundamental to future success, as well as the necessary infrastructure will be having a workforce with the skills required.

“One of the first things we did as ETZ Ltd was to set up the National Energy Skills Accelerator, a partnership between ourselves the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University, NESCol and Skills Development Scotland. Its purpose is to make sure that we're understanding what industry needs are and how they're evolving and to ensure we've got the right long term further education courses, short term courses for upskilling and reskilling and the right type of apprenticeships coming into play.

“I'm really positive and confident about the future we've got here in Aberdeen and the North-east. We've got amazing talent and know-how through our workforce and through the companies here. We've got great universities, a great college and organisations and facilities such as NZTC and the One Tech Hub as well as active councils. We need all these things to be in place to really make sure that this region is evolving. By utilising and harnessing all that knowledge, know-how and experience this region can really help accelerate the road to net zero.”