Fort William ready to fill wind farm training void

June 10, 2010

The Underwater Centre in Fort William, Scotland, has been an influential training provider for commercial divers and ROV pilots in the offshore oil & gas sector for many years. Now, with a little more investment, the facility believes it can play a key role in softening a skills shortage blow to the nascent offshore wind farming industry. Manager Steve Ham explains how.

Offshore wind farming looks set to replicate the template of North Sea oil in that the next ten years are likely to see massive growth from today's position of a small number of small scale wind farm sites to a scenario where thousands of wind turbines are installed along coastal stretches all over Europe, employing tens of thousands of specialist workers, both in construction and maintenance.

While many of the challenges that faced the nascent offshore oil industry can be directly transplanted to the offshore wind farm industry, some of the most crucial to ensuring wind farming success have yet to be addressed. At the forefront of these is manpower.

The recent oil & gas industry activity downturn has meant there is a readily available pool of workers for windfarm developers. But the predicted recovery in oil prices suggests workers will migrate back to the more lucrative oil & gas sector just as wind farm construction begins to accelerate, creating a massive personnel and skills shortfall that could stop wind farm construction in its tracks.

As the only subsea training establishment in the world that can meet the needs of the industry in terms of supplying both diving and ROV personnel, The Underwater Centre believes it could be a key player in assisting the offshore wind farming industry.

The facility was set up in the mid-1970's and from its private pier complex and array of diving barges teaches the basics of diving, as well as the vocational skills divers will need. The centre leases the seabed that is its training ground, enabling its team to construct purpose built test pieces and structures to ensure that the training they deliver best equips students for their new career.

For divers, the Premium Industry Career Package comprises HSE commercial training, which qualifies divers for inshore and offshore air diving and will equip students with the skills to work on wind farm developments. As well as diving training, the course provides comprehensive training in non destructive testing and welding and burning, as well as teaching students how to use specialised underwater tools.

ROV pilots will also provide essential skills and the Centre's ROV premium course will boost the number of subsea personnel who can work on offshore developments. As well as delivering a number of electronics modules, it also gives students practical experience, allowing them to build up essential flying time on ‘live' ROVs rather than simulators.

Britain has an opportunity to lead the world in the creation of the global offshore wind farming industry, much like it did with subsea oil and gas. In order to do that, we need to step towards the challenges and look to address them today, whether that's the creation of an industry-specific inspection qualification, or the building of subsea structures at The Underwater Centre to allow divers to train on installations similar to those that they'll be working on. Whilst many of the skills required will be similar to those of any other commercial diver, working on equipment that could, conceivably, be carrying 33,000 volts will require specialist expertise.

The Underwater Centre is in a position to train commercial divers and ROV pilots to the highest standard and has the facilities to allow it to design specific training modules to meet the needs of the renewables industry. There is no shortage of skilled engineering and construction workers who would love to train for a career in windfarm construction and maintenance; the biggest problem most students have is securing funding.

Throughout the commercial diving industry – both offshore oil & gas and inland civils – there is a disquiet that, whilst billions are being invested in the creation of capital assets and windfarm production technology, little is being done to support workforce development – commercial divers have to pay for their own training and it's the threat of being saddled with a large financial burden that is deterring many people from pursuing a career as a diver in the renewables industry.

The amount of investment required is relatively small compared to the huge sums of money being diverted into the industry – something in the region of £15-20 million over a five-year period. Without some level of support, it's difficult to see how there will be enough students who are able to self fund their training to meet the likely demand. An investment in training would ensure that the skills timebomb that most people agree is ticking, can be defused. How a training resource would be implemented, and who would be responsible for its delivery, remains to be determined. European Social Fund support is one option, as are government incentives for renewables companies to invest in training subsea personnel.

Future wind developments, especially those announced in UK Round 3 (OE February) will place a heavier burden on diver and ROV resources since they will have to contend with working in much less benign environments than the earlier nearshore farms, and at greater depths.

Estimates vary, but many experts believe that the manpower requirements to provide ongoing maintenance and repair to wind farms will quickly outstrip those of construction if the example of oil & gas, where more than half of all divers are employed in an inspection and maintenance capacity, is replicated. This could, potentially, culminate in a scenario where about 300 divers are being employed in wind farm installation but with three times that number employed in an IMR capacity. OE

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