How Pembrokeshire renewable energy course is teaching teenagers new skills
Teenagers Ethan Adams and Jack Hale said they barely knew anything about renewable energy when they signed up to a brand new course at Pembrokeshire College, but that has changed.
They now have a solid grasp of what is shaping up to be a significant source of jobs and investment in the Celtic Sea – the large body of water bordered by South West Wales, the South West of England and the south of Ireland.
Floating offshore wind farms in this marine expanse could be helping the UK decarbonise its power supply further in a few years’ time, and people will be needed to assemble, install and maintain the turbines, connect them to the grid, and refine and improve their design.
Staff will also be needed to research, build and maintain tidal energy projects – like a large electricity-generating lagoon and floating solar farm that has been proposed in Swansea Bay.
Mechanical engineering students Ethan and Jack were among the first intake of a pilot course called Destination Renewables at Pembrokeshire College.
The industry-led programme is the first of what is expected to be several courses underpinned by a £1.2 billion city deal for the Swansea Bay region, which comprises Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.
The idea of the courses will be to equip students with some of the advanced manufacturing, technical and other skills which the jobs of tomorrow will need.
Ethan, 18, of Tenby, said he was interested in widening his horizons. “I knew nothing about renewable energy,” he said. “I thought, why not expand my knowledge and gain an interest in what’s going on around me.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve found it really informative and interactive. It’s never the same thing twice.”
The students have done field trips and workshops, listened to renewable energy business leaders, and learned about the planning and consenting process, among other things.
Ethan said one example of what they’d explored was the different ways of “pegging down” offshore wind turbines, and the need to consider the impact on marine life – particular the vibrations associated with their installation.
“They were telling us that they can create a forcefield of bubbles to soak up the sound,” he said.
Ethan attended a conference held at the Port of Milford Haven where he spoke to Secretary of State for Wales David TC Davies. He and other students who have opted to carry on with the course will focus on a renewable energy project in the second year.
Ethan said he could see a future for himself in the renewable sector. “I feel like I would be quite suited to project management,” he said.
Jack, 17, who lives near Newgale, said: “I never really learned about renewable energy at school. I’ve definitely gained a wider perspective.
“We’ve had guest speakers coming in telling us about how much goes into these projects, and how many jobs there will be.”
Hayley Williams, the college’s curriculum development manager, said the course aimed to raise awareness both of the UK’s drive towards net zero – drastically cutting carbon emissions and offsetting the remainder – and the role Pembrokeshire could play in it.
Irish company DP Energy and French energy giant EDF Renewables have had a key role in delivering the pilot course.
“We started talking to DP Energy about 18 months ago,” said Mrs Williams. “What surfaced is that young people didn’t really know what net zero was and they didn’t know there was so much research and development taking place at the Milford Haven Waterway.
“The plan was to bring the whole renewable sector to life – from research and development, consenting, commissioning and connecting.”
She said around 60 students initially signed up but that this number had reduced. “Some students, say those doing doing construction, were not finding it was relevant to them,” she said. “The ones that have stayed on are thoroughly engaged. Other colleges in South West Wales are interested.”
Mrs Williams said there were around nine companies in the area developing marine energy technologies, and that a demonstration floating offshore wind project by a company called Blue Gem Wind could start being installed in the Celtic Sea next year.
Mrs Williams said she felt there was an element of “sea blindness” in Pembrokeshire about the natural resources just off the coastline. “All of a sudden it’s like somebody is opening the curtains,” she said.
DP Energy and EDF Renewables will provide mentoring opportunities to students in the second year.
Ffion Wright, of DP Energy, said: “We are working now to build on the success achieved to come back in September with a condensed programme that can be delivered to Pembrokeshire learners and rolled out to other interested colleges in Wales and the South West of England.
“A key ingredient of the programme has been the time given by industry partners to share their knowledge and expertise with students. The course fully embraces the ‘you have to see it to be it’ approach and it will continue to be central to Destination Renewables.”
UK ministers want to increase the installed capacity of offshore wind by fourfold by 2030. There are currently around 12 gigawatts (GW) of installed offshore wind in UK waters. The target is 50GW, with up to 5GW from floating rather than fixed turbines.
To put it in context, the UK Government said 50GW of offshore wind would generate the equivalent electricity for approximately 75 million homes. But wind conditions aren’t perfect all the time.
DP Energy said a 1GW project it would like to develop in the Celtic Sea with EDF Renewables could generate the equivalent electricity used by 920,000 homes based on average wind yields.
All told, this would require a vast acceleration in projects coming on stream compared to now, and industry groups say the planning process needs to be shortened and environmental assessments streamlined.
That in turn could concern those who worry about the impacts of offshore wind farms on busy waterways and the marine life they support.
The Welsh Affairs Committee has published a report saying that floating offshore wind, like the 1GW joint venture proposed by DP Energy and EDF Renewables, represented the “single biggest investment opportunity in Wales for decades”.
DP Energy said it hopes to secure a seabed lease for the project, called Gwnyt Glas – Welsh for blue wind – from the Crown Estate next year.
The Crown Estate has identified five zones in the Celtic Sea which will be refined into potential project development areas. It expects to begin a seabed leasing tender process this year for companies looking to develop projects up to 1GW.
Meanwhile, the ports of Milford Haven and Port Talbot together form the newly-announced Celtic Freeport, which aims to speed up the roll-out of floating offshore wind among other things. Free ports have tax exemptions and aim to boost economic activity.
Another long-term project – part of the city deal programme – is the testing and development of zero-carbon marine energy in Pembrokeshire. Called Pembroke Dock Marine, the £60 million project comprises infrastructure improvements, an engineering centre of excellence, and a new test area and demonstration zone.
It appears that South West Wales could have a big part to play in solving the UK’s net zero puzzle. There will be significant upfront costs but also good job prospects for young engineers, scientists, welders and project managers.
“I think it’s definitely a big move and it will take time,” said Jack. “But, with climate change, I think it’s the way to go.”
By BBC LDRS
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