Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

North East England eyes low carbon future

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Newcastle

David Fothergill, head of the technology services pilot programme, Newcastle City Council
Mr Fothergill will be busy installing charging points for months

"It is a watertight, fingertight, dustproof box," grins David Fothergill as he installs a charging point for electric cars in the Newcastle City Council car park.

A massive roll-out of electric motoring infrastructure has started in the North East of England as part of a plan to develop the region into a so-called "low-carbon economic area for ultra low-carbon vehicles".

Firms or organisations wanting to install charging points are having their investment matched out of the public purse, so installing a charging point costs them £2,500 rather than £5,000.

And the council itself is installing 88 charging points this year, says Sally Herbert of Newcastle City Council.

Add the hundreds of charging points being installed by neighbouring councils, private companies, supermarkets and universities, and there should be some 620 charging points in the region by the end of the year, she explains.

But best of all, at this stage, "electric car drivers won't have to pay for the electricity they use, nor will they have to pay to park while charging," Ms Herbert says.

Government backing

The UK is about to make a major push to become a leading player in the development of electric motoring.

Sally Herbert, Newcastle City Council
Electric car drivers won't have to pay for the electricity they use, nor will they have to pay to park while charging
Sally Herbert, Newcastle City Council

On Thursday, the government announced that it would be giving consumers a plug-in car grant worth up to £5,000 to anyone buying an electric car from January 2011.

And it announced a £30m fund to pay for the roll-out of 11,000 electric charging points over the next three years in London and Milton Keynes, as well as in the North East.

Trevor Mann, manufacturing boss at the Japanese carmaker Nissan's Sunderland factory, which produces about a third of the cars manufactured in the UK, is delighted.

"The infrastructure is very important to us," he says.

"Nobody will buy an electric car purely because it's electric or because it's green," he points out - so it will have to be a practical proposition for consumers.

Electric future

Nissan is emerging as an electric motoring pioneer within the motor industry.

Trevor Mann, Nissan International
We've had a fantastic track record of winning new models
Trevor Mann, Nissan

Last year, Nissan's chief executive Carlos Ghosn outlined plans to commit some 2,000 engineers and development staff to a 4bn-euro electric vehicle programme.

"The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years," he told BBC News during last year's Geneva motor show.

So no wonder Mr Mann is excited about the future.

"We nailed our colours to the mast and said we would become a global leader in zero-emission automotive mobility," he says.

Green Leaf

Nissan is launching its first electric car, Leaf, later this year. Last week, the company announced a global deal with rental car firm Hertz to help showcase the car to consumers.

Nissan factory in Sunderland
For the North East, it is an image change
Brian Fothergill, One North East

Mr Mann hopes the car will be manufactured in Sunderland, already the UK's largest car factory.

Nissan has invested some 200m euros in a battery factory here, so there are a lot of good reasons why the model should be built in this factory, he says.

"We've had a fantastic track record of winning new models," he says.

"They've been won, not just on manufacturing efficiency, but also on total delivery cost - including parts and materials, logistics, taxes and duties, as well as the cost of sales."

Honey pot

Nissan, with its commitment to electric motoring, is the "honey pot" that will help bring other players to the region, according to Colin Herron, responsible for the low-carbon vehicles project with the regional development agency One North East.

Nissan's test track
Nissan's test track will be opened for all companies to use

Both the government and the Regional Development Agency are investing in projects in the North East, including the National Low Carbon Vehicle Research and Development Centre that will be officially opened this spring.

The plan is to bring together the region's five universities - Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teeside - to pitch jointly for grants that should help create a world-class electric motoring research establishment, Mr Herron says.

In addition, a training college for sustainable manufacturing will be built next to the Nissan factory, on a site surrounded by wind turbines that Nissan bought second-hand to help power its factory.

Nissan's test track will be leased by the project and made available to outside companies, in the hope that it will attract much more inward investment from firms eager to take part.

Smith Electric Vehicles, Avid Vehicles and Elecscoot are among the companies already here and their number is set to swell, predicts Mr Herron.

"We're not going to bribe you to come here," he says. "We're saying, you want to be here."

Green collar jobs

As a pump-primer, the public investment should generate economic growth in a historically depressed area, as it will create thousands of new "green-collar jobs", according to Mr Herron.

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn with the Nissan Leaf
Nissan UK hopes the electric Leaf will be produced in Sunderland

Initially, people are needed to put in charging points, and then there will be plenty of work for training personnel.

"The fire service, the AA, the police, the dealers - they all need to be trained in this area," he says.

That comes on top of highly-skilled jobs in research and development, as well as manufacturing jobs, Mr Herron points out.

Before the industrial decline, "this was a region of innovation" and it is about to become one yet again, insists Brian Fothergill, who is working with Mr Herron at One North East.

"For the North East, it is an image change."

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