The UK’s Subsea Sector Must Expand for the Global Energy Transition

By Neil Gordon

When the pandemic hit, we had no idea of what lay ahead. No one would have imaged that it would be at least 15 months before we emerged. 

We entered lockdown with what we thought was a pretty clear idea of what the future might hold. There was generally a fairly linear path ahead. 

Energy transition and the move to net zero clearly were a big part of the envisioned future: a future colored by blue and green–the blue economy, which considers the future of our oceans and the resources within them and how we harness opportunities in a sensitive and sustainable way; and the green energy transition, where we need to reconsider our approach and the supply chain’s position within that. 

But as we return to normality, there is greater urgency and a sense that things are really moving at pace. We have an energy policy with ambitious targets in the U.K. and a North Sea Transition Deal, a G7 summit where climate change was high on the agenda, and COP26 is just around the corner. 

The awareness that we are on a journey to net zero has never been higher. Oil and gas operators are looking at their core business and how they must change to become part of the green energy story; decarbonization of offshore assets is a priority, with tough penalties for those who don’t take action. 

Supporting all these initiatives in the offshore arena is the subsea supply chain, a critical player in the energy transition, whose innovation, expertise, skills and knowledge are the foundations from which we will accelerate the transition. 

This transition presents huge potential for the subsea supply chain. The U.K. is the world leader in energy production from offshore wind, and the increasing focus on floating offshore wind entails more and more opportunities.  

The government’s goal of 40 GW in offshore wind generation by 2030 is a massive target. Combined with proposals for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and energy from hydrogen, it’s clear the ambition to achieve net zero is no longer pie in the sky. 

With the plans for this exciting future, it’s important to remember that this is a transition, and some of the projects that will contribute to the transition are fairly long term, so the value they bring to the supply chain will not be immediate. 

This can create confusion. With so much going on, how do companies make the right decisions on how they are going to diversify and when? 

Subsea UK’s role as an organization representing the underwater sector is to ensure the supply chain is armed with the information and market intelligence that will help companies make the right decisions at the right time. 

Understandably, government focus is on meeting the U.K. targets and building U.K. content into all the work that’s going on. The goal is to reach 60 percent U.K. content by 2030. At our recent Subsea Live conference, U.K. Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan acknowledged that our underwater industry is a hugely important asset for the U.K. and will be critical in helping achieve those targets. 

But to continue to be successful, the underwater sector must look outward and not just inward in terms of U.K. content. The opportunities in the transition will come not just from meeting U.K. targets but from looking at the global picture.  

Support from government will be crucial in looking after the domestic market, but the real value to the U.K.’s economy will come from a vibrant underwater sector that can compete successfully on the world platform; agile enough to adapt technologies and skills that will enable diversification into the emerging sectors, and innovative enough to develop new technologies and solutions to meet the needs of the future, faster and more successfully than anyone else. 

We have developed world-leading expertise in oil and gas, but the challenge now is to successfully and competitively make our mark on emerging sectors by winning business, exporting our expertise and technology, identifying world markets for renewable energies, and attracting inward investment. 

As Subsea UK undergoes its own transition into the “global underwater hub,” we will become a much larger cross-industry body for all underwater sectors, including oil and gas, offshore renewables, ocean science, defense, and aquaculture. 

Owned and governed by industry and supported with U.K. and Scottish government funding, the additional resource and capability will enable us to provide companies operating across all those sectors with the market intelligence and support they need to capitalize on the massive opportunities presented by the blue economy and the energy transition.  

Our aim is to transform the U.K.’s £8 billion underwater industry into one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the country, generating significant additional revenues and creating high-value, sustainable jobs and exports. 

And by doing that, we’ll help companies to take their place on the world stage, where the global underwater industry is predicted to grow from £50 billion to £140 billion by 2035.  

Oceans of opportunity indeed. 

Neil Gordon is the CEO of Subsea UK. 

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