Onshore work begins on Vattenfall’s Norfolk offshore wind farm after nearly a decade of planning. The man behind the giant project talks about his passion for development, what keeps him up at night and how jumping off a cliff in his paraglider is his biggest stress reliever.
“I never had a career plan, and I surprised myself that I ended up here,” said Rob Anderson, Project Manager for Vattenfall’s Norfolk Offshore Wind Zone, reflecting on an international career path that led him to lead the 160 – a strong team behind the groundbreaking project to bring green electricity to nearly four million UK homes.
As he began to work on the development that posed the greatest challenges of his career, he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his graduation from the Canadian Military University, when he broke a long tradition family by looking outside the armed forces to shape its future.
Stepping away from the well-trodden military path followed by generations of his family, Rob traveled to the UK after graduating as an engineer in 1997 to pursue his academic life at Imperial College London, leading global, launching a quarter century to travel the world in the energy industry.
On paper, his route appears as designed as the precise and precise planning of the Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas projects. Now 47 years old, he has gained a wealth of experience in different energy spheres, working mostly in small teams where he has acquired a wide range of expertise, practice and perspectives across projects.
“I use the phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,'” he joked. “My career has been more of a progression than expected, started in my thermal environment.
“When Vattenfall’s recruiter told me about this opportunity as project manager for Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas, it was a big step forward. It’s a huge project. I was stepping into a big company. I was excited but also aware that this was a big change for me, going from a company where there were five people in development to a company of 20,000 people.
Successfully navigating a difficult recruiting process that put him “through the wringer” gave him a brief taste of what lay ahead.
The twists, turns and challenges the Norfolk cluster faced made this “big step forward” even steeper.
“There aren’t many projects as big or as complex as the ones we’ve taken on,” he said. “This project was always going to be complex in the way we use HVDC technology and integrate it into a single cable corridor. It’s unique and where the rest of the industry needs to go, and we’ve taken that forward.
“Add in the challenges and delays we faced during the planning process, which led to having to change the planned sequence of building Vanguard first, followed by Boreas, to now Boreas first, negotiations with stakeholders, consents, Brexit uncertainty, Coronavirus, war in Ukraine, then supplier market situation and supply chain plan elements we need to deliver, there was a lot of discussion. contradictory aspects that we needed to find the right path.
“There are a lot of novelties in this project. Add to that the scale and the complex environment we face, it’s a lot of complexity we face at once.
“We had to overcome all of that. We are here now with Norfolk Boreas winning Contracts for Difference (CfD) and heading into construction with Norfolk Vanguard to enter the CfD cycle next year.
“We have the first phase of the project under construction and others are ready to start. Launching construction alongside the preparation of another bid is particularly difficult, especially in this environment. »
In addition to Project Curves, the first lockdown was announced just days after Rob started work in March 2020, meaning he spent the first year at his flat in Brighton working with colleagues that he had never met.
More than 20 years of experience in small teams “touching all aspects of projects to gain a unique perspective”, as well as his passion for project management and the assembly of several parts, have proven to be ideal bases for the unforeseen challenges ahead.
“Early in my career, I had broad exposure to all stages of project development – financing, engineering, commissioning and testing. In most of my businesses, I had to have a wide range of responsibilities and areas of interest and I certainly hadn’t spent a lot of time focusing on a very detailed aspect due to the small size of the businesses.
“I had to be flexible and learn a little about everything to get where I was.”
The adaptability and support of the dynamic and highly skilled team kept the project on track, according to Rob.
A core team of around 10 people is supported by another 160 people in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. The team is building rapidly as the project enters the construction phase.
“We’re a very international team – even in the UK we’re scattered all over the place,” he said. “In some ways, the lockdown made it easier because everyone was on Teams every day and the days were full of screen meetings. Now we’re bringing people together and realizing the value of that, but at the same time there’s the travel times and the inefficiencies of doing that.
The team’s passion for the project and maintaining focus and motivation in the face of challenges and change is second to none, he added.
“What I liked about Vattenfall was the depth of knowledge and expertise. Before, I was kind of a one-man band and had to pretend to be an expert, but now I have an expert team and that has been a big difference for me. I have a team I can count on and trust because they have the expertise to overcome these challenges. It motivates me.
“My core team is now made up of friends and we’re pushing this amazing project forward together.”
Business support is also strong, he said. “As a company, Vattenfall stands behind what it says. He really wants to be the driving force behind the transition to a fossil-free future, and the Norfolk Offshore Wind Zone is the flagship project that allows him to do so. The support I receive, and the project receives, and how the company can adapt to understand the challenges and continue to support through it all is very positive.
Rob finds the complexity of the project more exciting than daunting.
“I’ve always loved how the pieces fit together to make a project and the balance of compromises you have to make to make sure everything works together. The technology is fantastic, but everything has to fit in with the other parts – the communications, the landowners, the stakeholder engagements and how you deal with the different parties. It’s always fascinated me.”
The effects of world events and crises colliding on the project are what keep Rob awake at night.
“It’s not an easy environment at the moment. We have an energy crisis and we had to put together a very competitive bid for Norfolk Boreas in the CfD cycle. “It’s about compliance with our consent requirements, supply chain challenges and how we adapt to that, and the global financial aspects of it all. It keeps me busy and awake at night.”
“We also need to keep an eye on our people through it all – to make sure they’re happy and motivated and that we’re not putting too much pressure on them. It’s really important.
Rising material costs are the biggest financial challenge today, he said.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the suppliers and on us, especially now that we have tendered and have a fixed price. It rushes everyone. Hopefully things improve, but there has been so much volatility in the market that we need to watch this carefully.”
As the project moves into construction, Rob looks forward to his role changing, major contracts being signed, “thousands of people working the 60km cable corridor” from the Happisburgh landing to the site of the Necton onshore substation, and Vattenfall is heading towards its final Investment Decision.
All this will be accompanied by preparing the rest of the area and going through CfD for Norfolk Vanguard.
Despite this to-do list, Rob finds time to relax by paragliding.
“If I’m too stressed, I tell my team that I’m going to jump off a cliff.”
He recently participated in his first paragliding race in the Alps and finished in the top third.
“Flying in the race with 120 other pilots wingtip to wingtip, racing through massive mountains, it was amazing. It’s a challenge and it’s good for an engineer to do all that and see How does it work.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but it’s more about the challenge than the adrenaline. We are going further than we ever thought possible. Flying from Brighton 100km across the country, navigating the airspace with friends is a once in a lifetime experience, the perspectives you get and the challenges of using invisible thermals to travel across the country are simply amazing.