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North East UK ready and waiting for renewable energy

David Hopwood

Making sense of UK renewable energy policy has been tricky in recent times. There remains a contradiction between the challenging target the Government has signed up to, and the sluggishness with which policies are put into place. But as David Hopwood found out on a recent trip to the north east UK, regional development in renewable energy technologies is still taking place, something which is vital to the UK's chance of catching up with countries like Spain and Germany.

The battle to increase renewable energy in the UK continues apace, and the fact that the industry is very much alive and kicking bears testament — at least partly — to the changing political times in which we live. All EU heads of State have agreed that by 2020 the region will deliver 20% of its generated power from renewable energy sources. Each country is to share the burden towards delivering this target, within the supporting infrastructure of an EU renewable energy directive. The finer points of this directive, dealing for example with the trade of renewable energy generation between Member States, is still causing conflict, but in essence the directive remains on course. Which means that the UK has no place to hide in delivering on its obligations to Europe.

Companies with a presence in the North East of the UK

UK's formidable target

One of the problems with burden sharing — giving countries a target based partly on what they can achieve given the resources at their disposal — illustrates in the UK's case just how little progress it has made to date compared with renewable energy generated by many other countries in Europe. With under 2% achieved to date, the UK must achieve a massive 15% by 2020. And this will mean a requirement to generate 35% of the UK's overall electricity demand from renewable energy sources by 2020. A serious challenge.

And how will this be achieved? In the medium term by using the UK's well-documented wind resource (recent studies have indicated that up to 46% of this demand will need to be generated by offshore wind turbines).

But against this backdrop, the past few months have been frustrating for a renewable energy industry that needs to get moving. There have been political problems — including BERR officials lobbying ministers to try and redefine targets, or wriggle out of them altogether; as well as the UK active in Europe lobbying for mandatory trading of renewable energy Guarantees of Origin (GoO) between Member States. This would effectively help countries meet their targets by buying in credits from other countries (i.e. meaning they don't need to generate as much renewable energy themselves), but is widely derided by countries such as Germany, which feels that its own successful support scheme could be thrown into chaos as a result. The debate continues, though (promisingly) looks to be heading down the route of the sale of GoOs being allowed only when a country's target has been met, and by permission of that Government.

Another issue has seen controversy surrounding another important pillar of the proposed EU directive. Grid access. One of the issues that windfarm developers bemoan in the UK (apart from planning problems) is grid access. The EU directive seeks to mandate “priority” grid access for renewable energyy, something the UK (admittedly with others) does not want, or in any case does not think it needs, so long as windfarm operators can be granted grid access in a “timely” fashion. It's Transmission Access Review has admittedly looked at ways to achieve this, but the whole issue is complex, with the UK regulator Offgem involved, and to date the conclusion is far from resolved.

Latest offshore round underway

Despite such political activity (and the corresponding rounds of consultations and reviews which cause further delays), the recent launch of the Round Three leasing programme by The Crown Estate for the delivery of up to 25 GW of new offshore windfarm sites was hugely significant, as it sets in motion the process for getting the wind farms built and the wind energy generated.

Announced at the BWEA (British Wind Energy Association) conference in central London, the proposals identified 11 sites which it is hoped will produce over 30% of the UK's overall electricity needs by 2020.

Supply chain needed

For this target to be achieved, an estimated £80bn of investment is needed to create a supply chain capable of meeting demand for what could equate to some 5000 large wind turbines installed around the coast of Britain.

But if the UK isn't to lose out to others that already have better-developed wind energy supply chains (such as Germany, Denmark, and Spain for example), the supporting infrastructure required to develop the wind industry in this country needs to be ramped up dramatically.

North East targets the wind and bioenergy industries

This activity is already happening in several regions, and the North East in particular seems to be well placed to take advantage of the economic opportunities that wind power, and other renewable energy, offers.

Look back at the North East of England's history throughout the latter part of this century, and you'll find a fair amount to be gloomy about.

But today the region is fighting back, with a new energy strategy that utilises the unique infrastructure sustained by a chemical industry that still finds its roots in the area. This makes renewable energy technologies well-suited to inward investment, and the necessary upscale of offshore wind in the UK is well catered for by a region that already has skills in the offshore sector, ready-made sites along its rivers, not to mention public sector R&D support that aims to turn the region into a European hub for fabrications, assembly and delivery of offshore wind turbines.

Regional development agency One NorthEast (which sets and implements strategic priorities in the region) has recognised the potential of these resources, earmarking the modern energy industry as one of its crucial pillar's for the region's regeneration.

According to Mark Pearson, One NorthEast's business strategy manager, the region's economy has specific resonance with climate change issues (not to mention high/volatile energy prices, and uncertain energy supply): “Currently estimated to be worth around £900m, [the North East's] energy-related activities employ around 45,000 people, and this incorporates the supply of fuels; energy generation, management, distribution and use; and related supply chains. The North East was, and remains to this day, the most energy intensive region in the UK”.

NaREC’s wind connection

The New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC), based in Northumberland, is a leading research and development platform for new, sustainable and renewable energy technologies and aims to play an important role in helping the UK Government meet its targets.

NaREC’s facilities offer testing and development of large wind turbine blades; marine renewables; offshore and subsea equipment; micro-renewables and high voltage electrical equipment. And its facilities are set to grow significantly as it has recently announced plans to build the world’s largest wind research and development campus.

As part of the plans, the new campus will provide a range of independent facilities and a platform for developing turbines above and beyond the current 5MW benchmark.

Stephen Wilson, director of wind energy at NaREC said, “Installed wind capacity worldwide is growing by 20 GW year on year. By 2050 the world could need over 1000 GW. The industry now needs to make rapid step changes in turbine technology; increasing capacity and improving reliability, to ensure that supply meets with such a demand”.

And he added, “our proposals are designed to prepare the industry for major growth in very large capacity turbines – giving manufacturers the expertise and resource to develop and test new systems, and the supply chain the opportunity to adapt to bigger, more challenging technology.”

US energy giant Clipper Windpower has already chosen to base its European R&D work at NaREC, as it works towards producing what is set to be the largest off shore wind turbine in the world with an output of 7.5 MW.

And looking further forward, NaREC is also part of a regional consortium, established to bid for licenses to develop off shore wind farms in the North Sea as part of a collective – Northumbria Off shore Wind Ltd (NOW).

NOW will bid for the UK’s Round Three off shore licences, and plans to form a new electricity supply company (ESCo) to offer the ‘green electricity’ created in the North Sea to both business and domestic consumers.

Another new development for NaREC is a partnership with Safety Technology to create a unique range of safety training and certification courses for the wind industry. The courses will be available at the facilities in Blyth and will help to ensure that wind farms across Europe are operating according to strict safety standards.

Petrochemical heritage offers invaluable infrastructure

North East England also produces 58% of the UK's petrochemical output and almost a third of its pharmaceutical production. The processing sector is represented by the North East Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), which boasts 500 companies contributing an estimated £8bn to the regional economy and directly supporting 40,000 jobs, with another 280,000 supported indirectly.

Building on these strengths in chemicals and processing, companies like the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) are working to drive new sustainable energy sources. CPI provides sustainable low carbon energy solutions by exploiting the chemical energy contained in materials; developing new feed-stocks; providing improved conservation and resource efficiency; and delivering critical demonstrator projects and infrastructure.

“The Tees Valley [in the North East] has been described as the best place in Europe to develop a low carbon energy economy due to its resident skills and infrastructure; proximity to feedstocks and fuels; and the region's tradition of know how and innovation,” says Nigel Perry, CEO of the CPI.

In addition to the processing infrastructure already in place, the region is supported by excellent rail freight and port connections. Within an 80 mile radius of Teesside there is a surplus of one million tonnes of high starch wheat, which is an ideal feedstock for bioethanol, and 200,000 tonnes of oil seed rape, which can be used to make biodiesel.

Consequently, North East England is fast emerging as the bioenergy capital of the UK. It is home to the country's largest biomass power plant, Europe's largest bio diesel plant and the largest bio ethanol plant in Europe (currently under construction on Teesside).

And plans to make North East England an international hub for biofuels have been cemented with the development of a Regional Biofuels Strategy launched by One NorthEast last year.

Sustainable biofuels research

While production of traditional biofuels continues, research into “second generation” biofuels is also underway; into the use of waste materials from current production processes, such as wheat stalks, along with non-food crops such as woody biomass from trees, shrubs and bushes.

CPI for example works with small start-up companies to develop novel technologies which will improve production processes, and support the upscaling of projects from labs to pilot projects, and then through to commercialisation. And the organisation also intends to establish its own fully-integrated pilot facility for the testing and production of biodiesel on Teesside.

Looking to the long term, Northeast Biofuels is currently drawing up plans for a synthetic biofuels factory in the region, which would produce one million tonnes of biofuels from biomass per year before 2020. The intention is that this biomass will be converted into a liquid or solid form that is more energy-dense, thereby reducing the carbon footprint associated with feedstock transportation. Farmers in the region would be the preferred suppliers for the factory. However, Stan Higgins, CEO of the North East Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), cautions, “many experiments and scale-up trials will be needed to prove this concept will work in the commercial world”.

Fuel cells and the hydrogen vision

Earlier this year CPI became the only UK organisation to become a full member of the European Union Research Grouping for the €940m Joint Technology Initiative, a spin-off from the Framework Seven Programme (FP7), looking into the deployment of fuel cells and related technology.

Hydrogen can power fuel cells, and the Tees Valley has access to it in abundance: 75,000 tonnes a year is produced from natural gas and as a by-product from the petrochemical processes in the region's chemical industry. Teesside has over 50 years' experience of handling hydrogen and consequently has the infrastructure to store and distribute this fuel — something which is traditionally a barrier to the uptake of fuel cells.

Dr Jon Helliwell, project manager of the Fuel Cell Application Facility at CPI, explains, “As part of the EU programme, the CPI represents the North East and is actively working with third parties and start-ups in developing new applications and overcoming the hurdles to fuel cell use. We launched Fuel Cells North East in September 2007, a business cluster dedicated to creating an effective supply chain of organisations that have either direct or indirect links to fuel cells.”

In addition, CPI recently received £432,000 of Single Programme Funding from ONE to lead North East Energy 2015, a new project aimed at generating over £80m of investment over the next 7 years. The activities will focus on chemical and process industry applications, including fuel cells, fuelling waste utilisation and innovative combinations of existing technologies.

The fuel cells are particularly well suited to remote and hostile applications and locations, and a recent success includes the design of a fuel cell which can withstand the rigours of the South Gare lighthouse at the mouth of the River Tees. To complete this project, CPI worked in collaboration with PD Ports, which runs Teesport; marine engineering company Pelangi; which maintains the lighthouse and its systems; Schunk, which manufactures the fuel cell stack; and Air Products, the world's number one producer of hydrogen and a market leader in hydrogen energy application.


If the political winds blow favourably towards renewable energy through proper policies coming from the UK Government, and the North East continues to attract investment into the region through the likes of Clipper, it could push on and position itself as one of the foremost renewable energy hubs within the UK. And in the midst of dark economic times, this could also be very good news for UK plc, which needs all the help it can get if it is to develop a thriving renewable energy economy to rival the likes of Germany.

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Bioenergy  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Wind power