THE Northumberland port of Blyth has emerged during the last 12 months as one of the real winners of the Great North Revolution, says Andrew Hebden.
FUJIN is probably not a familiar name to the majority of Blyth residents. But the Japanese god of wind will soon become a dominant figure on the skyline of the port as it plays an increasingly prominent role in the Great North Revolution.
Northumberland’s largest town has not enjoyed the best of fortunes since the area’s staple industries of fishing, shipbuilding and mining went into decline.
A series of regeneration schemes pioneered in the town since the early 1990s have had some success but the town still struggles to shrug off the legacy of the difficult years of heavy job losses.
If there is one town, however, that stands to gain more than any other from the dawn of this new industrial revolution, then Blyth is arguably it.
The town is no stranger to renewable energy, having been the location for the world’s first offshore wind turbines in the early 1990s. But a series of key developments over the past 12 months have underlined the huge potential of the prize Blyth is now set to win.
Fujin is just one of several huge buildings planned for the town over the next two years or so as part of a series of major investments by Narec, the National Renewable Energy Centre. It has attracted almost £30m in central government investment in the past six months alone, decisions which have catapulted Narec into a truly global player.
Dr Alan Lowdon, Narec director of technology and innovation, predicts the developments will have a massive impact on Blyth. “A lot of the leading international players will be coming here,” he says. “It will mean there will be a big demand for hotels and restaurants and, of course, the port will be transformed.”
Dr Lowdon has no hesitation in describing the developments in the renewable energy sector as a new industrial revolution and he agrees the region is uniquely placed to play a central part in it.
He points to the legacy of pioneering businesses such as Parsons, as well as important facilities such as the former British Gas research facility and the three dry docks used to build the original Ark Royal in 1913.
This is allied to a strong university sector noted for its excellence in engineering and renewable energy in particular.
“There is a huge history in this area of marine renewable technology and a historical legacy of power generation,” he says. “We have an indigenous energy competence base that has been reignited by all of this. We have the skills, the culture and the enterprise and innovation in terms of technology development and we have to capitalise on that.”
Narec’s role in the renewable energy revolution is multi-faceted. But it is best-known for its research and testing of offshore wind turbines, something which will be hugely enhanced by the new 100m blade test facility and the 20-turbine wind R&D site to be built off the Northumberland coast in 2012.
These unique facilities will play a key role in the development of the new turbines planned for the Crown Estate Round 3 Programme. Narec’s list of commercial partners reads like a who’s who of the sector and is evidence that the organisation is not simply reliant on Government grants for its success.
One of the key challenges facing the offshore wind industry in particular is trying to convince investors that it is worth parting company with the huge sums required for these logistically challenging projects.
And it is here, according to Dr Lowdon, that Narec has such an important role to play, by providing independent data on the reliability of the technology.
The new testing facilities, for example, will subject a turbine to the rigours of 20 years’ worth of deployment in the North Sea during a six to nine-month period.
“There is huge uncertainty about whether this technology is fit for purpose,” says Dr Lowdon. “No one knows because it has not been done on this scale before.
“Our aim is to inform as much as possible. We use data to inform models which are able to predict and measure and ultimately give confidence to investors.”
The private sector alone cannot be expected to engineer the offshore wind revolution, he warns. But Narec is optimistic it will continue to be supported by the new Government because of its stated commitment to supporting the development of renewable energy and this new industry.
“Government and politics are very important in this,” he says. “The last major infrastructure projects in this country were gas and water and they were all funded from the public purse.
“We still need that public subsidy to play a part – we need an underpinning of support for our technological development and Government has a really big role to play.”
We need an underpinning of support for our technological development and Government has a really big role to play