Sunday, 16 August 2009

Teesside dreams of a green revival

From The Sunday Times
August 16, 2009
Danny Fortson
Walk into the Redcar working men’s club on a Tuesday night and you might feel as though you had been transported back in time. As 8.30 approaches, the room fills as more than 200 people take their seats, marker pen in one hand, a pint of Theakston’s bitter or John Smith’s Magnet in the other.
It’s bingo night and, after several weeks without a winner, the jackpot, at £2,700, is the biggest it has been in a long while. The atmosphere is jovial but Jeanette Harper, 72, said such a turnout was rare these days. “People are out tonight because the jackpot is big,” she said. “In a desert like this, everyone comes out for the bingo hoping they can change their dreams.” Sitting next to her, Christine Hill, 42, nodded in agreement: “We’re suffering. It’s a disgrace.”
Redcar, at the mouth of the River Tees, is on its knees. The high street is full of boarded-up stores but it was once a bustling company town, built in the shadow of British Steel’s imposing blastfurnace.
Like other cities in the northeast, its fortunes rose and fell with the “smokestack” industries — steel, coal, shipbuilding and chemicals. Today it is at the hard edge of the recession. Recent figures show unemployment in Redcar is already at 10.5%, well above the national average. But there is also hope of a rebirth. The government claims that new industries, many of them in the low-carbon green sector, will rise to replace Britain’s withering industrial legacy and drag the country out of recession. It is here that the Great Green Experiment will be truly tested.
Three months ago Corus, the owner of Teesside Cast Products, said it was going to mothball the plant. The closure would put 2,000 steelworkers out of a job, not to mention several thousand more who work in companies dependent on the site, which once employed more than 30,000 people.
The pain did not end there. Nearby is Wilton, the site originally built by ICI to process oil piped from the North Sea. In the past two months three companies — Dow, Croda and Artenius — have announced plant closures. Before the year is out, another 1,000 jobs, plus several thousand support workers, will go.
After years of steady decline they are blows Redcar cannot afford to take. “Save our Steel” posters hang in the windows of pubs and living rooms. The once vibrant seafront is dotted with empty pubs and a handful of arcades. “It’s a ghost town,” said Andy, a 45-year-old steelworker.
Some local business leaders caution against writing off the area. “Twenty-five years ago we had coal, we had shipbuilding. And we recovered. We’re pretty good at dusting ourselves off and coming back fighting,” said Ian Williams, head of business and industry at One North East, the regional development agency. “If Corus goes, we’re going to have to replace 4,500 jobs. Are we going to do that overnight? Of course not. But over time? Absolutely.”
In Redcar, however, few hold out much hope that the green revolution will come to their rescue. “Wind turbines? Bollocks. They won’t replace the jobs lost here,” said Andy. “The government has stabbed the working man in the back."
Standing on the south bank of the Tees, David Robinson watches a pair of cargo ships passing each other through the channel. “We have to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “Otherwise, this river will die.”
As chief executive of PD Ports, owner of the docks at Teesport and Hartlepool, few know better the damage caused by the recession. In the past year, cargo traffic has dropped by a fifth. If Corus closes, another quarter of his business will disappear.
Robinson is preparing for the worst but he is not without hope. With the industrial infrastructure, the port and a skilled workforce, northeast England would seem the natural home for the government’s green industries. An impressive number of projects are in the works
In the next few months Ensus, a local start-up, will fire up a £300m bioethanol plant at the Wilton complex. It will convert wheat into fuel, animal feed and carbon dioxide for the soft-drinks industry, and will be the largest of its kind in Europe.
MGT Power received planning approval last month to build Europe’s largest biomass plant on a vacant riverside plot. Gaia Power, a year-old start-up, hopes to hear by October whether a £200m waste wood burning plant will be built across the river at Billingham. At the Centre for Process Innovation, located at the old ICI laboratories, workers have a spring in their step after the government last month gave a £17m grant to expand its activities into new processes, such as turning algae into fuel.
Redcar residents will soon be able to see another sign of the promised future. EDF Energy plans to start construction of a 30-turbine wind farm a few miles offshore this year. Robinson hopes others will follow. “The offshore wind market is a huge opportunity,” he said. “There is going to be an entire new industry to build and support these big farms.” Indeed, local companies such as JDR Cables and CTC Marine are looking at gearing up to provide the cables and pilings that will be needed.
Nobody believes that turning Teesside green will be easy — retraining redundant workers, for one, remains a huge challenge. The business community here, though, is tight-knit and has swung behind the effort to reinvent the region.
Vera Baird, the local MP, said: “It was only a year ago when I was giving speeches about the new green revolution and how it will be led from Teesside, just like the iron and steel revolution was led by Teesside.” She added: “There are a lot of projects but they all have question marks over them.”
Two years after the credit crunch began, the good times are back for the City of London. In recent weeks banks have announced a return to profits and huge bonuses. For them, the worst seems to be over. On Teesside the effects of the financial meltdown continue to reverberate.
At the Wilton petrochemicals complex 54 projects worth more than £6.4 billion are in the works, according to Stan Higgins, chief executive of Nepic, the regional chemicals industry group. Most are still searching for financial backers. It is not easy. “Why is it that a company building a plant for 400 people to stitch handbags gets more help than a plant employing 100 highly skilled workers?” said Higgins. “It doesn’t make sense.”
And that is the problem. The jobs crunch is biting hard. Plans that take years to materialise will do little for the residents of Redcar, Cleveland, Stockton and Middlesbrough who are suffering now. After the bailout of flagship industries such as cars, or “too-big-to-fail” sectors such as banking, the government has nothing left to give. Many here feel deserted.
Alwyn Hughes, head of Ensus, can count himself lucky. “There are a lot of plans but we are the only ones that have raised the funds,” he said. “We did it three years ago when credit markets were much friendlier. With the credit crunch, the hurdles to raising money are much, much higher.”
Meanwhile, Wilton is bleeding jobs. Invista shut its nylon plant in January. In June, Dow announced plans to close its ethylene oxide plant, no longer able to compete with the Middle East. Croda, whose plant received its feedstock from Dow, soon followed. Then came Artenius, though there is talk that a new buyer may take over its plant. At Corus, the day of reckoning has been put off until the end of September thanks to a modest recovery in the steel price and a few short-term orders. The fight for survival goes on.
Kevin Ball, who was recently laid off from Artenius, said: “One of the young guys with us has an £800 mortgage and £400 car payment. Now he is on £65 a week. That’s why we are fighting. Because once the jobs go, they won’t come back.”
Back at the working men’s club, nobody shouted “house” as the caller read out the last of the numbers. Another week without a winner. They will surely come again next Tuesday, hoping for better luck.

Coal protesters create bonanza for security firms

Danny Fortson
A group of men was caught trying to break in at Drax power station in Yorkshire last month. Running across open fields toward the perimeter fence in the middle of the night, they were picked up by infrared cameras and motion sensors long before they got near the boilers and other heavy machinery.
The would-be attackers were not prosecuted — they were Drax staff who had volunteered to stage a break-in to test elaborate new security at the plant, western Europe’s largest coal-fired power station.
The security shake-up was ordered after hundreds of environmental protesters descended on the site, near Selby, in August 2006. More than 500 police were called in to contain the “climate camp” they set up and 39 people were arrested after trying to enter the power station and shut it down.
“2006 was the watershed,” said Peter Emery, production director at Drax. “We had to take a serious look at security because of the strong likelihood that we would be targeted again.”
As a result, a new interior perimeter fence was erected and CCTV cameras and motion sensors were installed. Emery, an engineer by training, regularly trades “intelligence” with the police about possible threats.
It wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago power station security, except at nuclear sites, amounted to a chain link fence and, as Emery put it, “a couple of fat blokes in a kiosk”.
In the past few years, climate change has moved from a fringe cause to a hot topic for lawmakers and the public around the world. A by-product of that shift is that campaigners who for decades had largely ignored the fossil-fuel electricity industry, the biggest source of pollution in the world, have made it a primary target.
Power companies have been forced to pump tens of millions of pounds into new high-tech security to keep the protesters out and the plants running.
David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, said: “Not long ago, people protested against pit closures and wanted to keep coal-fired power stations going. Now they march on coal-fired power stations and try to shut them down.”
It is a trend that is being replicated around the world. In the next two months big protests are planned at power stations in Italy, Australia and America. In June, protesters from Greenpeace attempted to stop a ship on the Humber carrying a cargo of coal for Eon’s power station at Kingsnorth, Kent.
Barrie Millett, head of business resilience at Eon, said the company had spent “several million pounds” on upgrading security at its sites in the past few years.
“It’s a different world now,” he said. “We have to ensure the safety not just of our staff, but of the protesters as well. These are big, dangerous industrial sites.”
Climate campaigners often resort to extreme tactics, such as chaining themselves to coal elevators or other vital equipment, to bring plants to a halt. Their actions can have unintended consequences. Shutting down a big plant would probably mean that even dirtier oil-fired stations, which lie dormant much of the time, would have to be put to use to take up the slack.
Camp for Climate Action is part of the small but uncompromising minority of protesters prepared to use illegal means. It organised the climate camp at Kingsnorth last year, during which there were attempts to invade the plant. It wants all fossil-fuel power stations to be closed, and is unapologetic about the extra security costs for power firms.
David Lewis of Camp for Climate Action said: “These companies are only interested in profits and producing energy, so it is good we are costing them money. If it is more expensive, maybe they will be less likely to invest in them. We won’t try to shut down renewables.”
Industry executives say they do not want to stop climate campaigners mounting protests at their sites, provided they are safe. “We share the same objectives of reducing emissions and we are working within the system to do that,” said Emery.
“Some people are very impatient for that change and the way they go about it is not constructive.”
Camp for Climate Action is planning the Great Climate Swoop, a mass protest in October at Eon’s power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire, or at Drax. An online poll is being held to choose. Lewis said: “We will let the people decide which they want to see shut down.”

Bubblebath baron funds greens’ fight

Kevin Dowling
THE founder of a £150m cosmetics empire has established himself as a radical successor to Dame Anita Roddick, the Body Shop tycoon, by devoting large parts of his fortune to green and humanitarian causes.
Mark Constantine controls the Lush brand, which hand-makes soaps, bubblebath and fragrances using mainly vegetable ingredients.
Constantine, 57, has spent £500,000 in the past year backing dozens of enterprises ranging from Plane Stupid - which campaigns against airport expansion - to anti-capitalist magazines and the guerrilla gardening movement, whose members descend on derelict urban spaces to improve and cultivate them.
Lush, founded by Constantine in 1995, is expected to double its funding for the causes next month.
“Mark is deeply passionate about direct action,” said Sophie Pritchard, Constantine’s charitable giving manager. “He feels that the people who get involved in direct action put themselves at risk to look after others and he really wants to help people like that. He feels that someone needs to look after those people who seek to look after us.”
Constantine owed much of his early success to Roddick, who died in 2007 of a brain haemorrhage. The two met when he was 22 after he read about The Body Shop in a newspaper and sent her some soap samples. She had just opened her second shop and placed an order with him for £1,200.
Constantine became her biggest supplier as she established her chain founded on environmental, ethical and human rights values. In the early 1990s Roddick bought him out for £6m. He put the money into Cosmetics to Go, a mail order sideline that the Constantines had already started. Within two years, however, the money was gone. He started again and Lush was launched.
The company, which won a Sunday Times Best Company to Work For award last year, is still based close to the family home in Poole, Dorset.
The entrepreneur, who does not have a driving licence and has never owned a car, cycles to work each morning.
Lush, which sells a range of natural cosmetics and soaps, has more than 600 outlets worldwide with sales of £153m last year and almost £20m in pretax profits.
The groups Constantine supports are often unpopular with the public. In December 2008 Plane Stupid protesters broke into Stansted airport and delayed thousands of passengers by chaining themselves to a barrier close to the runway. He paid the legal fees of 56 protesters who were arrested and is in discussions with them to provide permanent funding.
He has also helped anti-road groups and campaigners fighting expansion at Heathrow, Luton and Bristol airports.
Specific products are used in Lush shops to publicise charities as well as to raise funds.
This year Sea Shepherd, a group which has scuttled eight whaling ships in port and attacked a Japanese whaling vessel at sea, received £22,000 through the sale of a shark-fin soap in Constantine’s shops.
Another product, Guantanamo Garden, an orange foaming bath ball, raised a similar amount for Reprieve, the human rights charity, which has helped Binyam Mohamed, a British resident formerly held at Guantanamo Bay.
Other beneficiaries include Shift Magazine, which advocates a “noncapitalist way out”, and Undercurrents, a group of film makers who video direct action events.

Britain's ice man ready for a second space shot with rebuilt CryoSat probe

High hopes for global warming satellite after first probe plunged into the Arctic Ocean
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 16 August 2009
It was rated one of the most damaging setbacks to hit the study of global warming: on 8 October, 2005, a £100m probe designed to measure ice thickness at the poles plunged into the Arctic ocean minutes after launch on an old Soviet SS-19 missile from Plesetsk, northern Russia.
The blow seemed irreparable but, as a result of a remarkable technological comeback, the satellite's UK creator, Duncan Wingham, will soon watch as a rebuilt version of his CryoSat probe, funded by the European Space Agency (Esa), makes its attempt to reach orbit.
"It is one thing to get the chance to build a satellite, but to get a second chance when things have gone wrong is remarkable," said Wingham, professor of Climate Physics at University College London.
Dignitaries and scientists, including Wingham, gathered at Europe's Esrin space centre in Frascati, Italy, to watch the original launch and cheered as television monitors showed the rocket rising into the atmosphere. Minutes after lift-off, however, transmissions from the probe stopped. A celebratory cocktail party was halted and anxious scientists huddled round monitors.
Then the truth emerged. The SS-19's second stage had failed to separate from the third stage, because of a computer programming error, and the whole assembly, including the satellite, had plunged into the Arctic ocean, the sea whose icy secrets CryoSat had been designed to study.
"This is a tragedy for all the scientists who have spent years putting together this mission," said an Esa official.
Wingham was the worst affected: he had worked on CryoSat since 1999 and his grey, shoulder-length hair and increasingly dejected demeanour made him the most distinctive figure at the launch gathering.
"I was stunned," he admitted last week. "Statistically there is an 8% chance things will go pop, that you will lose a satellite at launch – I hadn't worried about that. But it soon became clear that something had gone very wrong. I remember texting a friend, 'I think we've lost her'."
The main problem for Wingham was that, in order to keep down construction costs, Esa had not built a back-up probe. The project looked dead and buried, or – more precisely – drowned. But only a couple of hours after the failed launch, Wingham had started lobbying senior Esa executives to build a replacement.
"I told them, this satellite is too important to lose." Remarkably they agreed within 24 hours, and a few weeks later this decision was backed by Esa.
It was a testament to Wingham's persuasive powers and the design and importance of his satellite that this replacement was supported by the agency – though he is also quick to praise "scientific committees, delegates and organisations across Europe" for their campaigning as well. Thanks to them, CryoSat 2 will now rise like a phoenix, it is hoped, when it is launched in November, this time from Kazakhstan on a Dnieper rocket.
Like its predecessor, CryoSat 2 will be fitted with a device known as an interferometric radar altimeter. This will be used to measure the height of ice as it floats on the sea, which in turn will reveal the overall thickness of ice covering the Arctic ocean.
This latter measurement is crucial for scientists. Satellites have already shown that the geographical area of the Arctic covered by ice is dwindling significantly. However, other research suggests that this ice may also have been thinning markedly. If so, polar caps could shrink far more quickly than is predicted at present. Less solar radiation would then be reflected back into space from Earth's white ice caps, and the rate of global warming would jump. In addition, land ice sheets would no longer be propped by sea ice and would crumble into the oceans, raising sea levels round the planet.
"We are altering the Arctic climate far faster than anywhere else on Earth," said Wingham. "We're changing the whole structure of the Arctic ocean, but we still don't know what the consequences will be. We have to find out what is going on up there. CryoSat will do that."
However, it will take some time to achieve this goal. Once CryoSat2 is in orbit, it will take at least a year to return enough data to make reasonable estimates of the rate of ice thinning.
After three years, the satellite's expected lifetime, that data should be compelling, said Wingham. "And after that, you never know – we might even get CryoSat 3 and a whole series of follow-up satellites."

Wind turbines stopped by power fault

A power fault has shut down nearly a quarter of the turbines at Little Cheyne Court on Romney Marsh - the biggest onshore wind farm in the south of England - just a month after it was officially opened.

By Andy BloxhamPublished: 8:00AM BST 15 Aug 2009

Transformers at the base of the turbines have been removed and returned to Belgium
Seven out of the 26 wind turbines on the isolated land on the Kent-East Sussex border have been hit by technical problems.
Transformers at the base of the turbines have been removed and returned to Belgium, RWE npower renewables, which constructed the site, said in a statement.

It said: ''All major work has been completed at Little Cheyne Court wind farm. However, there have been technical problems with some of the transformers.
''The problems with the transformers are not pertinent to wind turbine technology but associated with the high-voltage circuit.''
The firm added that replacement transformers would be delivered in mid-September and the site fully operational by mid-October.
The remaining 19 turbines were said to be running normally at the site, which was opened by Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband on July 13.
He said Britain needed to harness all technologies such as wind, fuel and clean coal to help meet challenging targets and counter the threat of climate change.
Permission was granted by the Government for RWE npower renewables to construct the £60 million wind farm in 2005 following a public inquiry.
Each of the 26 wind turbines at the site is 377ft (115m) high and weighs more than 275 tonnes.
It will eventually generate enough clean electricity to meet the average annual needs of some 33,000 homes.