ONE of the region's biggest ports recorded sales of £17m for the first time last year, despite losing its biggest customer.
Multi-million pound projects in the pipeline also look set to create hundreds of jobs at the Port of Blyth, in Northumberland, cementing its reputation as a centre of expertise for the renewable energy industry.
The port saw its cargo-handling volumes fall by nearly 500,000 tonnes after Rio Tinto Alcan closed its Lynemouth smelter last spring.
However, other trade continued to grow, in particular energy-related work, leading to the port garnering pre-tax profits of £550,000.
Chief executive Martin Lawlor said: “We’ve had rapid growth over the past four to five years, even since the recession.
“The £17m turnover is our highest ever on record and came at the same time as losing our biggest customer, Rio Tinto Alcan, plus we have recruited probably 10 new staff this year.
“We had a very good year last year and this year is potentially looking even better.
“We’re the port of choice for Northern England for the import of wind turbines for onshore energy and our biggest growth last year was the oil and gas sector.”
Lawlor revealed that several large schemes are set to hugely increase the size of the port, which employs 110 full-time workers and up to 40-50 contract workers on any given day.
He explained: “The RES Group is looking to build a £300m-£350m biomass power station here. The planning is just about done and we’re expecting word back in a month or two.
“We’re confident it’s going to go forward. The build, which would take about two and a half years, would start at the end of the first quarter next year.
“A big investment is required; the power station alone will create a couple of hundred jobs in the construction stage, and then it would need up to 70 people to run it.
“Another biomass scheme involves Lynemouth Power Station, which no longer supplies the adjacent Rio Tinto Alcan smelter. It is looking to convert to biomass by 2015.”
Both these projects will create more jobs and import up to 0.8m tonnes of biomass through Blyth every year.
Planning permission is already in place for biomass storage facilities for the Lynemouth station.
Lawlor added: “Another terminal, Bates Terminal, has been under-utilised for a while.
“The site benefits from Enterprise Zone status and energy sector-related companies have shown major interest in its development. We hope to get a couple signed up by the end of the year.
“We have a much larger site still in the former Blyth Power Station on the north side of the river – 25 hectares-plus. It has been closed for some years and there are opportunities there linked to the energy sector.
“There is firm interest in the site. We’re working with Northumberland County Council and its development arm Arch to bring the site into use. If it comes off, there will be hundreds of jobs there by 2015.”
The port handles container services from the Continent and Scandinavia and deep sea vessels from as far away as China and Japan.
It has bought a £2.25m crane with a heavy lifting capacity of 120 tonnes – doubling the previous limit – and capable of handling cable reels and wind turbine components for its clients across the North and Scotland.