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The answer to woes is blowing in the wind

By Clare Weir

In the wake of a £50m deal which will create 300 jobs, one Belfast college is focused on training the workers needed to help the city to become a hub for building turbines

Last month’s news that Danish energy giant DONG had signed off on a £50m deal to make Belfast its hub for building wind turbines threw Northern Ireland one of its biggest industrial and academic challenges to date.

Up to 300 people will be employed at the site on Belfast Harbour when the project is completed and with around £25bn due to be spent on renewable energy in these waters over the next 10 years, with the creation of thousands more jobs, the potential for growth in the industry is huge.

Recent studies suggest a 91% increase in full-time employment within the UK wind turbine sector in the coming years and with the planned increase in energy delivered from renewable sources in the UK by 2020, demand will be high for those with the skills and knowledge to operate and maintain on and offshore wind farms.

But with the construction and delivery of wind-powered energy being a relatively new industry for Northern Ireland, where will the staff come from and how can the region position itself at the forefront with just two years before the DONG quay is fully operational?

The new Belfast Metropolitan College began to recognise the benefits to the economy and the education sector early on and is now poised to deliver Wind Turbine Operation, through a series of maintenance diplomas and technical certificates from City & Guilds.

The diploma is targeted at up-skilling existing operatives, while an apprenticeship is aimed at training up novices.

The Met is one of just three colleges in the UK offering programmes tailored to cope with the imminent growth of wind energy — the others are in Scotland and Northumberland.

Since February 2011, Chris Corken, course co-ordinator and lecturer, has been involved in a project supported by Belfast Harbour, new home to DONG Energy, which sees the Met link up with B9 Energy.

The Larne firm operates and maintains 49 wind farms across the UK and Ireland, with 750 large scale wind turbines.

The college and the company are now working together to develop a training environment in Northern Ireland to promote employment opportunities within the onshore and offshore sector.

The Department for Employment and Learning is providing tens of thousands of pounds worth of support under the Assured Skills programme, a joint project between DEL and Invest Northern Ireland. This is the first Assured Skills project in the sector.

The funding has allowed Met engineering staff to undertake industrial placements with B9 to develop a course that incorporates sector-specific requirement and spend time on windfarm sites.

The link-up has already attracted interest from organisations such as Renewable UK, who see the partnership as a model for the rest of the UK.

With the Met and the Belfast Harbour within plain sight of one another, in the former shipbuilding heart of the city, Mr Corken is not being glib when he says the Met wants to help reinvigorate Belfast’s engineering history “on a Titanic scale”.

“The opportunity being presented to Northern Ireland now reminds me of the large-scale extraction of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s,” he said.

“We’ve known that the wind energy sector was going to grow in size and potential for some time, but the problem with training for windfarms is that it is hard to give students practical experience in a college setting.

“We can work on components and the small scale things, but linking up with B9 and other agencies allowed us access to things like height training and the larger scale work which needs to be carried out. We are visiting existing sites to get hands on experience of what it is like to physically work on a wind turbine and we are hoping to install components at our Springfield E3 campus in future.

“Belfast Harbour is already expecting to grow in size and is actively working to attract more companies like DONG to Northern Ireland. People have to stop thinking about wind turbines and the renewable sector as solely being part of the green agenda — this is about jobs, manufacturing, the economy, this is going to be huge for Northern Ireland.

“We’ve got to look past the environmental arguments and think about the economics: the issue is how are we going to create jobs?

“The other great thing about these courses is also that the skills are transferable. We are working very closely with all energy sectors — electricity, oil, gas, marine, other renewables — so even if not everybody on this course gets a job in wind energy, they will be equipped with the skills to get a job in another part of the market.”

Other big businesses are showing interest in the collaboration of industry and academia.

“I recently took part in Invest NI supply chain event for DONG Energy and Siemens,” he said.

“Siemens are already talking about localising their Irish Sea production, because it is more cost-effective than building turbines elsewhere and shipping them — by the time this takes off, the turbines are going to be absolutely massive.”

While Scotland is already forging ahead with plans to capitalise on the wind energy markets, Mr Corken said he is unconcerned about competition. “The scale is going to be so large that no one country is going to be able to deliver everything,” he said.

“There are only three ports which open into the Irish Sea and there will be enough business for everyone. We can’t see places like Scotland and the northwest of England as competitors, rather we need to work alongside them.

“DONG will be here and starting work in 2013 and we need to move quickly, this is a massive opportunity.

“The supply chain is also going to need staff — there are components, hydraulics, blades, from big companies like Bombardier to tiny companies making small parts, everyone will have a role to play.”

Development has put the wind in the sails of new met course

B9 Energy said the commitment from DONG to establish a wind farm site in Belfast had encouraged Belfast Met to cater for the demand in wind farm qualifications. B9 said it had the expertise to help set up a curriculum, while the first 16 students on the course would come from its own workforce. Overall, B9 said that the UK was 'leading the world' in the development of offshore wind farming, similar to how it once dominated off-shore oil and gas development.

Managing director David Surplus said: "The parallels with growth in employment opportunity in the two industries are real and if Northern Ireland plays its cards right then its technicians, having been trained in local waters around the Irish Sea, will be able to work on offshore wind farms all over the world in years to come."

He added: "Northern Ireland is located near the centre of the Irish Sea offshore wind industry and has already built up a well developed support network for the onshore wind industry through organisations such as the Global Wind Alliance.

"We have plenty of young men and women who are capable and willing to enter the industry and we have an excellent education system to help them get there.

"I am optimistic that the future for Northern Ireland based wind energy technicians is bright.

"There is now real and growing commitment from companies, education establishments and government that should allow the province to punch above its weight both at home and in international terms.

"We just need to remain focused, work hard and stick together."

B9 has 41 wind farms comprised of 674 wind turbines. Its sites are spread from Cornwall through Wales, Lancashire, Yorkshire Cumbria, the Scottish borders, Argyll and Caithness, as well as Northern Ireland and in the Republic, counties Donegal, Leitrim, Roscommon, Cork and Kerry.

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