BiFab wins £4m contract to build prototype tidal energy turbine

The contract could kickstart a marine energy manufacturing boom in Britain because project developer ScottishPower wants hundreds more turbines to be built in the next few years, creating the prospect of thousands of jobs for Scotland.

Fife-based BiFab (Burntisland Fabrications), which traditionally has manufactured equipment for the North Sea oil and gas industry, will today be named as winner of the £4m series of contracts. It will build ScottishPower’s first full-scale working prototype device, which the company claims is the world’s most advanced. The design will be used for the 10MW tidal energy project, the largest in the UK and potentially in the world, in the Sound of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland.

This month ScottishPower submitted a planning application for the project in the fast-moving channel between the islands of Islay and Jura. It intends to tender contracts in two years’ time for manufacture of the project’s 10 1mw turbines.

ScottishPower has also recently been given a licence by the Crown Estate to develop a 95MW project in the Pentland Firth, which separates the Orkney Islands from Caithness, in the north of Scotland. Manufacturing costs are expected to fall as techniques are refined and contracts for both these projects are likely to be worth more than £100m.

The prototype turbine, which will be built by BiFab in Stornoway, on Lewis, has been developed by Hammerfest Strøm, a joint venture between ScottishPower, Norwegian energy group Statoil and other energy companies.

Thousands more of the tidal energy turbines could be manufactured in the next decade and beyond for use in Scotland. According to a government report, the fast-moving currents of the Pentland Firth could eventually generate up to 4GW of electricity, more than enough to supply Glasgow and Edinburgh. More than 7% of the world’s tidal energy resource is also thought to be in Scottish waters. The Scottish government has a target of generating 2GW (2,000MW) of electricity from tidal and wave power by 2020.

Welcoming the announcement, Keith Anderson, director of ScottishPower renewables, said it was delighted that Hammerfest Strøm was building the first HS1000 turbine in Scotland. "We know that the company looked internationally to find the right levels of expertise to deliver this contract, so it is a major boost to Scotland’s renewable energy industry and to the wider economy to see this new technology going into construction in Stornoway. With our projects in Islay and the Pentland Firth also being developed, we hope that the announcement today is just the beginning of what could be a major stream of new opportunities for the renewables and manufacturing industries in Scotland."

BiFab will use its new facility in Arnish, on Lewis, to build the 22 metre tall steel structure of the turbine, including its foundation and legs. Another Scottish company will be announced today as the winner of the bid to manufacture the nacelle, which supports the turbine generator. This company will also assemble the device, which weighs 1,100 tonnes.

Politicians in Edinburgh and London, as well as UK-based energy companies, are determined to reap the economic benefits of marine energy. In the 1980s and 1990s, Britain missed the opportunity to become a major manufacturing base for the wind energy industry, even though it has some of the best conditions in the world. Denmark, thanks to grants and other forms of early government support, is now a world leader in the industry. Only a handful of small wind industry manufacturers exist in Britain, which imports the vast majority of the wind turbines it uses from countries including Denmark and Germany. Experts say that wave and tidal energy technologies are at a similar stage of development as the wind industry 20 or 30 years ago.

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, wants to make sure that Scotland becomes a world leader for manufacturing marine energy devices and the services and supporting industries that go with it. As North Sea oil and gas production dwindles, the companies that service offshore rigs and platforms, many of which are already in Scotland, are keen to adapt their expertise to the offshore renewable industry.

Salmond welcomed the news today. "Awarding £4 million of contracts to Scotland is a massive vote of confidence in the talent, expertise and infrastructure we have to support the development of a clean, green renewables future," he said.

Scottish Power plans to have its Sound of Islay project operational in 2013. It will provide enough electricity for Islay’s 3,500 inhabitants for 23 hours a day and export power to the mainland. ScottishPower has signed a contract with Diageo, the drinks group, to provide power from the project to eight distilleries and maltings on Islay, including the makers of the Laphroaig and Lagavulin whiskies.

This year, in Britain’s first marine energy licensing round, the Crown Estate gave 10 licences for companies to develop projects around Orkney and the Pentland Firth, including to ScottishPower.

Most marine energy developers are still carrying out more tests to make sure their devices can stand up to the harsh operating environment. The economics of large-scale marine energy projects are still sketchy, as few exist, and UK developers are entitled to large subsidies. For tidal projects, these are worth one and a half times those earned by offshore wind farms, and two and a half times for wave farm projects.

Unlike the basic design for a wind turbine, which is uniform, The development of tidal power has been complex. There are hundreds of concepts for tidal and wave devices which take time and money to test. With so many different technologies at different stages of development it is not easy to plot its development, unlike wind power which benefited from the uniform wind turbines design. Ironically, ScottishPower’s tidal device sits on the seabed where currents turn its blades to generate electricity.

One industry executive recalls visiting the Pentland Firth where an array of companies were testing their prototypes, with mixed success. "It was a bit like Wacky Races," he said, referring to the cult 1970s cartoon in which drivers competed to win the title of the "World’s Wackiest Racer"., he said: But after years labouring in the shadow of its more advanced renewable rival, the wind industry, marine energy is finally coming of age.