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BLYTH WIND WINS: fact-finding outing

<<Climate Action Newcastle members' trip to Catapult - a cutting edge wind turbine testing facility - underlined the revolution underway in green power generation. CAN member John Adams, who organised the trip, reports the exciting possibilities for the future.>>

Catapult is currently the world’s leading wind turbine testing centre, in large part because of the windy nature of Britain’s coastline. This former British Gas plant has come a long way - and it kindly opened its doors to Climate Action Newcastle, with members of the Quakers’ Climate Action Group, to find out more.

Marketing Manager Tom Chaplin explained that their forte is their testing facilities for the blades and nacelles (generators) at the top of the turbine towers. The tests are done in cathedral-like hangars, and Catapult’s certification of the safety and reliability of the equipment is a valued guarantee: it recently allowed a partner to raise US$5bn thanks to its approval of its design.

The blades being tested are now 107 meters long – so long in fact that the current testing facility is having to be extended. The blades are flexed horizontally and vertically. Catapult had in fact broken one – better to find that out in Blyth rather than on the Dogger Bank (where they have an array of 277 towers).

The generator housing (called nacelles) are also tested in an adjacent cavernous hangar – this time for GE in France. They weigh 750 tonnes and now generate 13.6 MW each – enough to power a small town’s domestic needs. Its hoped the next generation of turbines may produce 20 MW.

The expected life of the equipment is 25 years – salt corrosion and damage to the blades from rain are major contributors to ageing. Other issues yet to be addressed are recycling of the blades (which are carbon fibre on unlikely wooden frames) and disruption to marine life from installation of the towers on the seabed and the cables carrying power to the shore.

Wind power has helped bring down the price of renewable energy worldwide by its innovation and use on large scale projects. But we need more to achieve the UK's net zero targets, and the last round of bidding this year saw no bids for offshore sites – the government had set an unrealistic price for new offshore sites, disregarding very thin margins and increased competition, both local and international.

The next stage of development will be the extension of AI to wind turbines, with duplicate running of a turbine by both human and AI operation – the AI learning and then making efficiency suggestions. Robotic inspection, manipulation and repair are also being investigated, plus ‘tethering’ the towers to the seabed in deeper water, rather than attaching them. Each blade is at present a one-off manufacture, and mass production still has to be introduced.

This was a unique opportunity to see cutting edge technology at work. Having this expertise in our area broadens the chances of the workforce developing the skills that will be in demand in the future and hopefully attracts complementary companies - such as British Volt. Catapult is committed to the benefits of green technology in meeting a 2050 net zero carbon scenario, when wind power will provide one sixth of electricity – about the same amount as a much reduced coal, oil, and natural gas. Onwards!

***If you'd like to suggest a Climate Action Newcastle field visit or outing, we'd love to hear from you. Email us:, or mention it at our Monthly Meeting.

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