In 2001, Envirolink Northwest was established as a cluster body for the LCEGS sector, with the overriding aim of assisting Northwest business to exploit these growing markets. Due to high levels of growth and investment, offshore wind has been a priority for Envirolink and they have successfully established strong relationships with all the major developers and wind turbine manufacturers in order to integrate Northwest companies into their supply chains. Overall, the Envirolink programmes have been a major success story assisting over 4,000 businesses, and creating or safeguarding over 2,000 jobs.
Research work in 2002/3 into the regional R&D capability revealed that apart from the nuclear sector there was limited private sector energy R&D in the region. Academic research was strong but fragmented with energy research carried out across a range of faculties. In 2005, the Joule Centre was launched to address two key gaps:
- The lack of a clear route to exploitation of academic R&D by the private sector
- A lack of engagement between the academic community and SMEs
Although based at the University of Manchester the Joule Centre was a partnership of all the regional universities with a model of providing matched funding for energy technology research projects and delivery of an extensive programme of networking events, workshops and conferences through competitively themed calls.
In 2007/8 the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC) was launched as a major initiative to encourage the exploitation of energy technology Intellectual Property (IP). Physically located at EA Technology, Capenhurst, the EIC provides incubation space and access to funding for start up businesses focusing on electricity transmission, distribution and demand management. Scottish Power, SSE, Envirolink Northwest and CE Electric have all provided funding in the form of grants, soft loans or equity to the start up businesses.
Tidal and wind energy represent the major natural energy assets of the region, in particular the tidal range of some of the region’s estuaries such as the Mersey, Wyre and Solway Firth are second only to those found at the River Severn. With central Government support for tidal energy focused on theSevernestuary a clear gap emerged in terms of understanding and exploiting the regional tidal resource. An early Joule programme project undertaken by the University of Liverpool /Proundman Oceanographic Institute modelled the total resource in the eastern Irish Sea, concluding that if all this resource was fully exploited it could satisfy up to 50% of regional electricity demand. Subsequently, feasibility studies for the Mersey Estuary,MorecambeBay, the Duddon Estuary andSolway Firthwere undertaken.
The Mersey study, funded in partnership with Peel Energy, concluded in March 2011, highlighting a preferred option as a barrage incorporating extensive sluice gates and around 700MW of turbine generation capacity sited between Bromborough and Otterspool. This option represented the optimum balance between maximising energy generation, reducing capital cost and minimising environmental impact.
The various regional interests around tidal energy were brought together via the Northwest Tidal Energy Group which was a networking group comprising potential developers, academics and other stakeholders.
With half of the UK’s civil nuclear workforce in the Northwest and operations covering the whole of the fuel cycle, the nuclear sector plays a key role in the regional economy and is the mainstay of the sub-regional economy in West Cumbria. Until 2008, the nuclear sector was dominated by the decommissioning of facilities and in 2004 the ownership of these sites was transferred from BNFL and UKAEA to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Based in West Cumbria, the NDA developed a strategy for introducing competition into the supply chain in order to drive down costs whilst maintaining the highest possible safety standards. Contracts for the management of the sites were put out to tender and private sector contractors appointed. Smaller companies were unable to compete and had to quickly acquire a new suite of business development skills to survive in this competitive environment. In response the NWDA launched the Northwest Nuclear Supply Chain Support Programme offering one to one support to SMEs, training workshops and meet the buyer events. The project ran until 2010; created/safeguarded 360 jobs and is continuing in West Cumbriathrough the West Cumbria Development Agency.