Beatrice the Bellwether

Brian Hicks

Updated April 11, 2006

Scotland is in transition. A recently instituted smoking ban finds Edinburgh bars emanating stale sweat and baked potato essence instead of the pleasant-by-comparison nicotine stench. Meanwhile in the hills and off the shores, the Scottish energy industry is making a switch away from its own toxic smog with more auspicious results.

I have spent the past week in Scotland, touring facilities and talking to the champions of the country’s impressive renewable energy sector. I want to start by telling you about the most exciting part of my visit – the Beatrice Windfarm Demonstrator.

Allan MacAskill, project director of Beatrice for Talisman Energy, tells me size does matter: “Scale is all when you move offshore.”

Mr. MacAskill’s massive undertaking bears out his words. I toured the project’s fabrication facilities at Burntisland and Methil, in Fife, Scotland. A few kilometers down the road, in Cellardyke, media and veterinary officials were clamoring to understand how a local swan contracted Bird Flu, but I couldn’t have cared less.

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The sheer scale of the Beatrice fabrication facilities is spellbinding. Sparks fly up from metal as sheets are joined permanently together under a ceiling so high my hardhat-wearing self felt like a mouse in a mansion.

These hangars were originally built to construct oil and gas rigs during the boom of Scotland’s North Sea fossil fuel exploration. Now, they are giving birth to the wind energy behemoths that may play taps for oil’s day at the top of Scotland’s priority scale.

As I said: Scotland is a country in transition, with beginning middle and end all evident at places like Burntisland.

She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Engineer Gunnar Foss raised a finger to his lips, letting me know that what he was about to tell me was not for public consumption. This aging Norwegian, a one-man wonder of the rig world, has designed for Beatrice a turbine support base unlike any other. Just how far down his system can plumb into the ocean floor, I cannot tell you. But rest assured his plans will change the industry forever.

You see, until now offshore wind power installations have been little more than onshore farms shoved into virtual wading beaches just off coastal areas. Beatrice, on the other hand, is part of an initiative known as DOWNVIND: Distant Offshore Windfarms No Visual Intrusion In Deepwater.

The normal bones people pick with wind farms – visual obstruction, harm to migratory bird flocks, humming rotors in rural communities – are rendered moot by deepwater wind projects.

And by working with the universities of Strathclyde and Aberdeen, Beatrice coordinators have executed exhaustive environmental impact assessments to safeguard local marine life. Officials have also done site surveys on the geological composition of the site area, leading to plans that will keep structures sturdy for 25+ years.

In shallow waters, sands change and structural integrity is compromised. Gunnar Foss’s designs will be fixed to bedrock that won’t budge, supporting mechanisms that will deliver 5-7 megawatts (vs. only 3 from onshore systems).

All the while, Foss’s schematics enable the gauge of steel to be reduced by a factor of more than 1/4, drastically reducing construction time and material intensiveness.

There remain many questions about the future of renewable energy worldwide. But you need only glance at Jeff Siegel’s Green Chip Stocks to know that the industry surrounding wave, wind, solar, and other nontraditional methods is booming.

And Beatrice is a keystone for wind energy on a global scale.

More than a few people I have spoken to in Scottish renewable energy see the two demonstrator turbines of the Beatrice project as indicators of things to come. This cuts both ways: If Beatrice is successful and does what it is predicted to do, the UK and EU will pour more money into wind energy as an alternative to many countries’ nuclear leanings. If Beatrice fails, nuclear will gain even more favor in the halls of European parliaments.

A View of the Future

I should say here that I had never seen a nuclear power plant in my life before coming to the UK. Just on the train ride from England to Scotland, I saw no fewer than 5 sets of hyperbolic smokestacks along the countryside.

Having now beheld both windmills and nuclear facilities, I can tell you which I prefer.

Scotland and its advances are new, and Beatrice’s extension to 200 units could provide 20% of Scottish energy needs once fully installed. The Scottish executive (whose initiatives are separate from London’s since “devolution” in 1999 gave the UK’s components independent policy power) has dedicated the country to 40% renewable energy by 2020.

The ramifications of this development are salient for all citizens and businesses, and not only because climate change is a politically heated issue here in the UK.

Vestas Wind Systems’ investment in Argyle, Scotland decreased that community’s unemployment rate by a full 7%, and the Burntisland facility I toured has gained a new lease on life through its renewable energy foresight, even while it caters to traditional fuel companies.

Imagine what could be done in depressed industrial areas worldwide through this new energy economy.

Exploration fuels innovation and vice-versa, and Scotland is at the vanguard of a growing army of societies pushing forth to their benefit and ours. Keep reading for more info on my UK renewable energy tour and future explorations of worldwide markets you won’t read about anywhere else.

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