Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 00:01 UK

Teesside embraces green industry

By Ian Reeve
Business Correspondent, BBC North East and Cumbria

Ensus site
A 300m bioethanol plant has been built on Teesside

At night the Wilton chemical complex on Teesside is a spectacular sight.

Illuminated by thousands of coloured flourescent lights, its miles of pipework take on an eerie orange glow, as do the hissing plumes of steam vented into the night sky.

It is a sight that sums up Teesside, perhaps the grittiest part of the North East, where many of its inhabitants revel in the collective nickname of "smoggies".

Wilton seems to have an aura of solidity that reflects the Teesside character, with its 5,000 hard-hatted, overalled workers making chemicals on a grand scale.

And yet behind the façade all is not well. Wilton has issued unremittingly bad news over the past year.

Companies are leaving, jobs are going, the solidity merely an illusion.

But outside the works there is hope - and evidence - a new sector is springing up that could alleviate the job losses in the traditional industries, such as commodity chemical-making.

The area is instead embracing low-carbon green technologies, with a brace of schemes and projects that are either under way or planned.

The biggest of the lot is actually on the Wilton site. New company Ensus has built a £300m bioethanol plant.

Alwyn Hughes
Green industry is perfect for Teesside says the Ensus chief executive

It will convert wheat into fuel that can then be mixed with petrol. The by-products will be used to produce animal feed and carbon dioxide for the soft drinks industry.

Striding proudly around his new fiefdom, contemplating coming online before Christmas, Ensus chief executive Alwyn Hughes says Teesside is the perfect place for this type of new chemistry.

"It's utilising the skills that ICI and other chemical companies have had on Teesside for the last 20, 30, 40 years," he said.

"It's very much leveraging the skills and talents that Teesside has in abundance, but applying them to what I think is a very exciting industry which is all about climate change and improving the environment."

The Ensus workforce of about 100 appears to have made the switch seamlessly.

Ross McMahon, 26, was a traditional apprentice in the traditional petro-chemical industry but he's now a convert to this new way of working.

He has all the facts; where the wheat will be brought in from - as far away as Lincolnshire and the Scottish Borders - how much will be used - a million tonnes a year - and a profound belief this will be a long-term career with real prospects.

Close by in Billingham, the chairman of Gaia Power, Michael Fox, has the same belief that "green" industries can be a source of jobs and investment for Teesside.

He has just won planning permission for a £200m recycled wood burning 50MW power station.

The prospective Gaia site
Planning permission has been granted for a wood burning plant in Billingham

It will produce enough electricity to heat and power 80,000 homes. And he thinks he knows why Teesside has embraced projects such as his.

"We don't suffer from the sort of chronic nimbyism we see in the rest of the country," he said.

"We've spoken to people in the area and we've canvassed local residents.

"They seem very keen, especially as we're bringing jobs to the area and good quality jobs as well. These are not jobs with a low skill base."

More highly-skilled jobs will be on offer at Europe's largest biomass plant on vacant land at Teesport.

Up to 150 posts should be created by the MGT Power scheme, which has also won planning permission.

And at Haverton Hill, on the banks of the River Tees, the Tees Alliance Group has broken the ground for a super-sized facility to build structures for wind, wave and tidal devices, making more than 50,000 tonnes of products a year.

All these new projects have been encouraged by the government's stated intent to reduce carbon emissions by 15% by 2020. Teesside seems to have accepted the challenge with alacrity.

But with the apparent decline of its traditional industries maybe it had no choice.

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