“This is absolutely massive for me,” Mustafa Hamed explains. The 21-year-old from Wigan first came to Britain from Iraq as a child more than 17 years ago in the wake of a bitter war steeped in oil. Today, he is helping to build what will be the world’s biggest offshore windfarm off the east coast of England.
Hamed joined Jones Bros Civil Engineering UK, a Welsh engineering firm, as an apprentice last year. He now works as a contractor at the Dogger Bank offshore windfarm, a multibillion-pound energy project by SSE Renewables and the Norwegian energy company Equinor that is due to begin powering millions of British homes by the early 2020s.
“I take it really seriously because it’s something that will benefit the world,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to be part of this. It feels like every day we’re doing things that haven’t been done before, progressing towards something really important.”
The rise of Britain’s offshore wind industry has made the giant turbines dotting its coastlines one of the country’s greatest industrial success stories since the discovery of North Sea oil. It has been a rapid ascent, with the transformation from high-stakes gamble to industrial triumph taking place over the last five years.
Other renewable technologies are also quietly subverting decades of energy industry dogma. In Nottinghamshire, disused mining sites host tens of thousands of solar panels, while in West Lothian an old open-cast mine has found a second life as the site for an onshore windfarm. Twenty miles away in Edinburgh another defunct colliery is the site of plans to create geothermal heating sourced from underground pools of water left behind after the coal reserves were depleted.
Meanwhile, North Sea oil engineers are shifting their focus from oil-rich reserves to empty subsea caverns that have the potential to store millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from the flues of power plants and factories.
Many within the UK’s declining oil industry are looking to the renewable energy boom to future-proof their careers and be a part of something bigger than any one project or company.
Matt Wooltorton, 38, from East Anglia, joined Scottish Power to work on the East Anglia offshore windfarm in 2016 after years in the North Sea oil and gas business.
“I have colleagues who I used to work with who would definitely like to transition from oil and gas into renewables. These windfarms are built to last for 25 years, so those are really long-term jobs being created. You could really see the opportunities emerging where I live on the east coast of England, and it’s exciting because there’s a wake of opportunity that comes behind these projects for businesses in maintenance work,” he says.
“There are people, often contractors, who come on to these projects for the money but you often find that a lot do end up wanting to stick around. There’s a real sense of doing something worthwhile.
“You can see these climate targets for the future, and you know that you’re going to make an active contribution to a major change, not only as part of a company but as an individual too. We aren’t just working on big energy infrastructure projects – there’s a real reason for what we’re doing.”
As the world emerges from the economic fallout of Covid-19, the renewable energy industry may be tasked with matching its role in helping to meet Britain’s climate targets with powering the UK’s green economic recovery too.
The government hailed offshore wind as “a British success story” only weeks before the coronavirus lockdown descended on the UK. Since then record levels of wind power generation contributed to renewables meeting almost 50% of the UK’s electricity needs in the first months of this year, driving coal-fired electricity to lows not seen since the first power plants began generating in the industrial revolution.