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UHI collaboration with industry will help make ScotWind leasing round a success for Scotland and its young people

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By Su Bryan, dean of the faculty of science, health and engineering, and Alison Wilson, head of development, University of the Highlands and Islands

Sidney Black Memorial Engineering Award winner Iliana Dimitrova.
Sidney Black Memorial Engineering Award winner Iliana Dimitrova.

Big changes are coming. One of Scotland’s largest sources of renewable energy is offshore wind, with amazing resources right here in the Highlands and Islands.

Last year, the Crown Estate launched ScotWind, the first offshore wind leasing round of its kind in over 10 years, with 15 sites identified for development around Scotland’s shores.

In January 2022, the successful bids will be announced and work will start in developing up to 10GW of new generation capacity. Throughout COP26, we heard a lot about the Scottish target to reach net zero by 2045 – offshore wind is a key component in achieving that.

What does this mean for us, here in the Highlands and Islands?

In short, this emerging sector will bring significant new opportunities to the region, potentially thousands of new jobs in the development, consenting and construction, and in operation and maintenance of sites. These will enable our young people and those looking for career changes to learn, live and work here, contributing to renewable energy generation and to creating that net zero future.

Many roles will be highly skilled technical or engineering posts, while management and leadership, science specialisms, including marine biology and geology, and practical skills will also be key to success. We need innovators to improve operations in vessels, logistics and subsea cables, and experts in artificial intelligence, robotics and data analysis.

How do we make sure that we have enough people with the right skills to take advantage of this opportunity? We believe the University of the Highlands and Islands has a key role due to our proximity to the sites, our tertiary nature and industry partnerships. We inspire learners and train and develop people at all stages, right from nursery settings, through vocational education, to undergraduate and postgraduate degree studies. We are also well placed to supply the research, consultancy and knowledge exchange the industry needs now and in the future.

Covering science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM education underpins almost all sectors, including many of the roles needed in offshore wind. Currently there are not enough people with STEM skills, with significant gaps in engineering and computer science. STEM courses are often considered ‘hard’ and in some subjects there is a shortage of skilled teachers. But we are playing our part in addressing these challenges.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has dedicated STEM engagement professionals working with local pupils and teachers to inspire young people towards careers in STEM. Our STEM team designed our ‘Lend-A Lab’ model, specifically to work in rural areas.

With significant funding from SSE’s Highland Sustainable Development Fund, we have reached some 16,000 pupils. Recently, a consortium of Macquarie’s Green Investment Group, TotalEnergies and the Renewable Infrastructure Development Group (RIDG) donated funds to support the continuation of this valuable underpinning work.

In the ScotWind leasing round, developers will consider ways to promote diversity in the supply chain. Our university has some strong female engineer role models. Emma Gunn from Castletown is our 2021 Engineering Excellence Prize winner and aircraft engineering student Iliana Dimitrova won our first Sidney Black Memorial Engineering Award.

Engineering Excellence Prize winner Emma Gunn, from Castletown in Caithness.
Engineering Excellence Prize winner Emma Gunn, from Castletown in Caithness.

These prizes were gifted to the university by kind donors, keen to encourage and recognise our students. This external support, from individuals and businesses, makes a real difference to our ability to attract and retain talented students at all levels. We want to shout about their success to help inspire the next generation.

The time is right for the university to work closely with the developing offshore sector. This provides us with a solid understanding of what skills will be required and when. We want to work together to let our young people and those who are looking for a new challenge know about the exciting opportunities coming their way and how they can train for these roles, right here in the Highlands and Islands.

We have been developing an energy skills partnership fund, building strong relationships with some of the ScotWind bidding consortia. For example, over the past year, we have been working closely with the Green Investment Group, TotalEnergies and RIDG consortium. Each of the partners has a longstanding Scottish presence as well as significant financial expertise, technical capability and a track record in successful offshore project development.

Over the last five years, TotalEnergies has invested around £2.5 billion in projects in Scotland, Macquarie and Green Investment Group have supported almost half of the UK’s offshore wind capacity currently in operation and RIDG is a Scottish offshore wind developer with decades of sector experience. They encouraged us to engage with other developers to shape our plans to collectively achieve the maximum benefit for our region.

These relationships are already helping us gear up for the future opportunities. Companies are delivering guest lectures, mentoring, placements and internships.

So, there is a real excitement at the university about the prospects for our region and the way in which industry is keen to support the university to harness the skills and innovation, particularly of our young people.

We cannot wait to see the long-term benefits of working together in this way.

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