THE headlines may be gloomy with the economic clouds still looming over the Tees Valley's key industries, but for those involved in planning for the future of our area it's a different story.
So what is the reason for optimism in the current economic climate? The answer, says Hugh Lang, chairman of Tees Valley Unlimited, is that we are one of the areas of the country best placed to grasp the opportunities of the revolution now taking place in the energy and chemical industries-the transformation to the ‘low carbon economy’.
TVU – the public/private sector partnership which co-ordinates the economic regeneration of the Tees Valley City region – is currently drawing up proposals aimed at persuading the Government that it should support establishing the area as a European Centre of Excellence for the low carbon economy... and in particular the opportunities in ‘green’ energy generation and technology based on biological feedstocks rather than oil and gas.
Says Mr Lang: “Given the current economic upheavals, it’s natural that a great deal of attention is being concentrated on doing everything we can to safeguard those industries which currently form the lifeblood of the Tees Valley - especially steel and chemicals.
“Yet at the same time we have to take the longer view – recognising that both economic and environmental pressures mean that in an area such as the Tees Valley, which is one of the country’s most important industrial centres, we have to prepare for massive changes... and be ready to grasp massive opportunities.
“It is our industrial heritage which puts us in such a strong position to lead the way in the low carbon economy. The skills which we have developed in steel, petrochemicals and engineering are just what will be required in the new industries – for example our advanced engineering cluster employs 5,000 people with exactly the right expertise and clearly many of the local carbon projects will offer them great opportunities.
“Already we are at the forefront of biofuels developments, with Ensus developing Europe’s largest bioethanol plant at Wilton and Biofuels Corporation’s world-class biodiesel plant at Seal Sands. Our research facilities at Wilton are amongst the best in the country, including the Centre for Process Innovation and the National Industrial Biotechnology Facility which help firms replace outmoded traditional chemical processing techniques with cleaner, greener, less wasteful methods.
“In energy generation we have the potential to deliver no less than 10% of the UK’s electricity needs, with several large plants already in operation and a string of proposals for power stations using a variety of ground-breaking technologies including waste, biomass and carbon capture and storage.
“We believe we have all the requirements to become a major force in the low carbon future - and we hope the Government share our enthusiasm.”
As part of its commitment to that low carbon future ministers recently announced the concept of designated Low Carbon Economic Areas (LCEAs) and recently the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson were at Nissan’s Sunderland plant to announce that region will lead the way in developing low carbon vehicles.
John Lowther, director of the Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit, believes that there is an opportunity for widening the scope of a North-East LCEA to include many of those activities where the Tees Valley is leading the way.
He explains: “The aim of LCEAs is to accelerate low carbon developments in areas where, in the words of the Government, ‘existing geographic and industrial assets give a locality clear strengths’ and it is hard to imagine anywhere better qualified to meet that objective than the Tees Valley.
“Already we have a potential stream of projects linked to green technologies amounting to an investment of £4bn. As well as the skills, research capability and existing facilities, we have large areas of land available, close to the third largest port in the UK, with deep water access.
“Already there is a massive pipeline network within the area and the potential to develop it further. The plans by Progressive Energy for the construction of a carbon capture and storage plant will require a transmission pipeline to take CO² for storage under the North Sea, opening up the possibility of it being used by other large CO² producers in the area -we currently produce 5% of all the UK’s industrial CO² emissions.
“As well as CO² many of our large companies produce waste heat and steam which could be used to provide heating for home and businesses – just another example of the opportunities we could develop through Government, local and regional agencies and the private sector coming together to turn the hopes for a low carbon future into reality.”