The former coal town leading the race for clean energy | FT

The Port of Blyth boasts a world-class research hub for offshore renewable energy. Cambois, just a few miles north, is the landing point for a sub-sea electricity cable from Norway, and the proposed site of an electric car battery factory. The FT’s Leslie Hook visits these projects as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate talks

Can the uk take the lead in renewable energy one region in the northeast thinks it has the answer i’m at the port of blithe in northumberland this used to be the heart of british coal country but today it’s home to some of the biggest and most exciting green energy projects in the uk pioneering advances in wind power a two billion pound link to norwegian renewables

And the proposed site of a gigafactory for electric car batteries all within the space of a few miles the government is hoping projects like these can paint the country in a green light ahead of the cop26 climate change conference in november while at the same time boosting it’s leveling up agenda to bring jobs and prosperity outside london the offshore renewable

Energy catapult right at the center of the port has come to symbolize these twin goals boris johnson himself paid a visit to its wind blade testing facility in december last year today it’s my turn to take a look around hi tony hi leslie and welcome to the world’s largest blade test facility let’s go see it okay let’s go opened in 2012 this giant complex has

Tested some of the world’s longest wind turbine blades some measuring more than 100 meters long so tony tell me what’s happening here in this space what is going on here we call it accelerated life testing so this this blade is designed for a 25 year life and we compress that into six months of testing there are two types of tests we do a static test just to

Pull it rather like you’re bending a ruler when you’re at school and making sure that it can withstand its design strength and the other one is a fatigue test where you bend it as you bend the paper clip back and forwards and eventually it would snap this turbine when this blade’s at 12 o’clock it’s almost equivalent in height to the eiffel tower nowhere else in

The world is capable of applying loads at that scale one rotation of these giant blades generates enough electricity to power a uk home for 24 hours the fact they are based on a new design is also good for local jobs you know this blade in particular is destined for dogger bank offshore wind farm within probably one month of us completing the test the owners

Secured a major contract to supply this blade and on the back of that they’re committed to building a factory a t side creating 2 000 direct and indirect jobs beyond testing this government-backed center also provides support for research and innovation so far it’s helped over 800 companies develop new wind and marine energy technologies and it’s just part of

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The broader transformation underway at the port of blyth i believe in the 1960s the port applied exported six million tons of coal to europe things have moved on were ideally situated because we’ve got the road and rail infrastructure as well as the port facilities it’s almost like a perfect storm that the blight valley is set just to move forward and flagship

Hopefully the uk in green energy the port still handles around 2 million tons of cargo every year but not coal and today it’s better known as a support base for offshore energy projects in the north sea i’m taking to the water to find out why so can you tell us a bit about all of the different facilities and services that are offered here at the port why has

Flights become such a center for green energy in particular so a combination of things really we have the expertise of the port itself we have a huge supply chain that plugs in at every possible angle from manufacturing to fabrication to painters welders scaffolding companies so when a company has a project that they’re working on they’re able to get everything

That they need on site this ready-made supply chain has already helped the port secure investment to expand their services including training facilities for the next generation of offshore engineers now they’re looking to expand even further converting the site of a former coal mine to make room for low-carbon businesses it’s the bait’s clean energy terminal the

Name comes from the pit that was originally on the site and the great thing about that opportunity is this shift from coal into renewables is happening in front of our eyes businesses will be attracted by solar power electric plant and machinery running on sites and a tie in with the offshore renewable energy catapult to look at all sorts of technologies to help

To decarbonize the nation just across the river from the bates terminal camas is home to another symbol of northumberland’s fossil fuel past built in the 1950s blythe power station burned coal for almost half a century before it was decommissioned in the 90s and eventually demolished in 2003 largely neglected since then the site still has an active connection to

The uk’s electricity grid and new energy enterprises have started to move in that’s just a great expanse of land which has still got the the infrastructure that connects directly into the national grid so as far as electricity production is concerned you know you’ve got a ready-made socket basically just need to put the plugs in now anywhere anywhere else you

Would have to develop the new network the north sea link will go live this year bringing in enough electricity to power nearly one and a half million uk homes but that electricity isn’t being generated in canvas it’s coming from another country entirely more than 400 miles across the north sea i’m told the roof is the best place to get a sense of how that power

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Gets here welcome to the the roof of the converter station you get a fantastic view across the the port the station the substation you can see all from up here amazing so tell me about the north sea link what is it and what is it doing so the north sea link is a huge underwater electricity cable between the port of blyth and where we are today and norway and it

Allows us to move renewable energy between norway and the uk so on a day like today where the sunshine and the wind’s blowing we can potentially export energy and when when we don’t have a surplus of renewables in the uk we can bring in hydro power that’s produced in norway the north sea link is the longest interconnector in the world and it took six years and

Cost nearly two billion pounds to build so norway may seem like an unlikely energy partner but given the type of renewable energy each country produces they’re an ideal match norway has a real abundance of natural renewable energy from hydropower um and and so that and it’s very you know it’s a more stable renewable than some other so that makes it a fantastic

Um exporter of power and helps each country manage the intermittency of renewable energy when bad weather drives down renewable energy production the shortfall is normally filled by fossil fuel power plants by providing an alternative source of clean electricity the north sea link estimates it will save 23 million tons of co2 emissions by 2030 but once the cable

Gets here it isn’t as simple as plugging it into the mains the sighted canvas covers half a million square feet with state-of-the-art technology it’s all here to convert one form of electricity direct current to another alternating current hi nigel hi leslie welcome to blithe converter site let’s go and have a look this is the valve hall there’s four of these on

Site and this is where the magic happens this is where electricity from norway is converted to a form which we can use in our houses in the uk so what are the steps in this conversion process inside here we have thousands of small valves and they switch on and off 50 times a second and that recreates the waveform and converts it to alternating current the valve

Hall is just a small part of the operation here but despite the acres of pristine machinery it will take only a few on-site workers to keep this facility taking over so while the converter station may have replaced coal for the region’s energy needs it has not been able to replace the thousands of jobs the coal industry brought to this area since the pits closed

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These areas the coalfield communities have suffered greatly because of unemployment you know the question is can green jobs ever replace what we have with the coal industry in areas like this and the answer is that it can it’ll it’ll it’ll take an awful lot of doing an awful lot of investment from the government but why should areas like this not receive the

Required investment it’s like having this green industrial revolution here if it doesn’t mean that we’re going to change the lives of the people in these communities the land next door to the north sea link converter station has been bought by british vault a startup looking to build and operate a gigafactory in what used to be blythe power station’s coalyard

The company hasn’t yet secured funding for the plant but they have big ideas for the site and for the local community the factory will be here in front of us covering all of that 3.4 million square feet with mezzanines when it’s built it’ll be the fourth largest building in in britain if it comes to fruition what would this project mean for this local area in

Terms of jobs and and uh the local economy well well the factors in three phases and we think a thousand jobs per phase directly with british vault employment but we want to do a lot more than that we would hope by the time we’re finished here we don’t only have the factory with 3 000 jobs but we think another 5 000 potentially in supply chain as well that that’s

The ambition once built the factory would have plenty of local renewable energy to draw on in its effort to make zero carbon batteries but british fault is still a long way from achieving that goal how much more money will you need to build a project at this scale it’s an expensive project we’re looking at 2.6 billion in as an order of cost we’ve been through

Already our initial funding rounds our a round our brb series is open at the moment we’ve also made an application to uk government for the automotive transformation fund we’re hoping that will come through soon that’s what that fun was set up to do that’s what we’ve applied for yeah that’s what we need there are still big hurdles to clear before this factory can

Become a reality but this site and the wider region around it prove there’s an appetite for a british green industrial revolution whether that happens and whether areas like blyth and canvas benefit will depend on how the government balances its push for clean energy with its leveling up agenda you

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The former coal town leading the race for clean energy | FT By Financial Times

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