‘We’ve got a buzz’: How green energy projects are reshaping the industrial north

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The first blade made by workers at the Siemens factory on display in Hull in 2017  (Getty)
The first blade made by workers at the Siemens factory on display in Hull in 2017 (Getty)

There was a “lot of sadness” in Mary Lanigan’s corner of Yorkshire when the local steelworks – where generations had worked – started to be demolished.

But now, there is a different feeling in the air in Redcar and Cleveland. “We’ve got a buzz,” Lanigan says.

This is one of many areas in northern England that suffered a decline in the heavy industry that was once its beating heart.

Decades later, it is at the centre of a new industrial revolution. But this time, it’s a green one.

There are a number of renewable energy projects in the works, including plans for a wind turbine blade factory for Dogger Bank – which promises to be the world’s largest offshore wind farm – and a pioneering domestic hydrogen-testing project.

Lanigan, who is the leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council, says you can feel the excitement “on the street”, with locals talking about how this booming green industry will benefit “younger generations”.

And studies suggest the boost is exactly what they need, as former industrial areas are rated as having some of the worst levels of social mobility in the UK.

A man walks along the shoreline in front of Teesside wind farm in the North Sea off Redcar (Getty)
A man walks along the shoreline in front of Teesside wind farm in the North Sea off Redcar (Getty)

Thousands of new jobs are promised for the north as green opportunities crop up in areas that have lost heavy industry. And in some cases, these projects are – somewhat symbolically – taking over former industrial sites.

“Where our operations and maintenance base is being built used to be a shipyard,” Felicity Wann, operations lead for Dogger Bank wind farm, tells The Independent. “It was the Redhead shipyard years ago, and my grandad was a plater there.”

She adds: “You can see that transition from just a couple of generations ago: a really heavy industrial manufacturing site that has dwindled away, to coming back to have our net-zero carbon-neutral building on the same position, managing an offshore wind farm.

“That’s really exciting to see. For me, it’s a really tangible example of how in just a few years that’s changed and regenerated.”

In Teesside, a new wind turbine blade factory is planned on the site of a former steelworks. And near the former mining town of Blyth in Northumberland, a gigafactory – which makes batteries for electric vehicles – is proposed for the old power station site.

Melanie Onn, the former Labour MP for Great Grimsby, who now works for RenewableUK, says this is “important” for communities that have suffered “quite a significant loss of principal industry” and felt their areas were left behind.

A wind turbine overlooks the former mining town of Blyth (AFP via Getty)
A wind turbine overlooks the former mining town of Blyth (AFP via Getty)

These projects, and the jobs and investment they promise, “mean a lot” for those who witnessed this decline and were left wondering what was in store for their children and grandchildren, she says.

The government has vowed to close the gap between left-behind and more prosperous areas in the UK through its “levelling up” agenda. But long-awaited plans revealed earlier this year left the north underwhelmed.

However, there remain high hopes that renewable energy projects could help to revive some areas.

“The government often thinks about levelling up and reaching net zero as if they’re completely separate missions,” Henri Murison, of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, tells The Independent.

“In reality, in many cases, they are completely tied together.”

The director of the group, which represents business and civic leaders in the north, also uses the gigafactory planned near Blyth – an area he says faces “significant socio-economic problems” – as an example.

“Its economic benefits are as significant as its environmental benefits,” Murison says.

He adds that Grimsby, which has suffered from the decline of the fishing industry, has been reaping the benefits of offshore wind investment and is “booming”.

Lanigan, the council leader for Redcar and Cleveland, also believes the planned green energy projects will “totally and utterly transform” the area.

“We need this because we are in the north. I’ve always thought, in the past, we didn’t get what we need for uplift,” she says.

Matt Baker, the climate change lead at Northumberland City Council, says he also sees the push to net zero as working to improve deprivation levels hand in hand with the climate, as more investment and jobs come in. But it is vital to make sure that the jobs do, in fact, go to local people.

Onn, from Renewables UK, says there is a “huge amount” of work to do to ensure local communities can make the most out of new opportunities.

“We know that we have got gaps in skills at the moment that we’re trying to overcome, and get people trained now in order to fill the jobs as and when they arrive,” she says.

Councils and companies tell The Independent they are working with schools and colleges to make sure children are taught the skills needed for the booming local industry, as well as making them aware of careers in tackling the climate crisis.

But it is not just for future generations. Tom Nightingale, the northeast stakeholder manager for Equinor, which is involved in the Dogger Bank wind farm project, says it was the other way round when a student came up to him on a recent school visit.

“They were saying: ‘My dad, he’s an electrical engineer, could he come and work on the wind farm?’”

Wann, from Dogger Bank, says there has already been high demand for jobs. She says the project recently recruited 10 technicians – most local – out of around 450 applications.

But the positive effects of a green revolution in former industrial heartlands go beyond providing jobs.

Onn mentions how Hull, an old fishing hub, displayed a huge wind turbine blade in its centre in honour of a nearby Siemens factory when it was named the UK’s City of Culture five years ago.

A wind turbine is displayed in Hull in 2017 (Getty)
A wind turbine is displayed in Hull in 2017 (Getty)

“There was a sense of a new identity, something else for the city to be proud of in the area,” the group’s deputy chief executive said.

Lanigan says: “We can’t look back at the steel industry that was there – although it did look after the community, economically and everything else.

“Things have got to move on.”

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