Future of the North: Energy and opportunity

Future of the North: Energy and opportunity

As a Northern developer we have a keen interest in how the regions are developing and what the future holds. Whether you look at Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield or Hull, it is clear that the fortune of individual places in the North is dependent on the success of all.

In the fifth article of this series, we take a look at how embracing the development of renewable energy could have the twin benefits of helping in the fight against climate change and developing thousands of skilled jobs for workers.

It is an undeniable fact that the UK, along with the rest of the world, must decarbonise its economy as quickly as possible over the coming decade. We have passed the time when we could have implemented change more slowly and now we have no choice. The alternative looks to be catastrophic.

While successive UK governments have committed to reducing the country’s carbon emissions by 80% in the next 40 years, it has been clear for a long time that current policy will not allow us to meet or exceed that target. Greater ambition is called for, and the North of England could potentially see an outsized benefit from this process.

This is not to say that it will be easy or that all the changes will be positive. The North is home to the lion’s share of remaining coal and gas power stations – a legacy of industrialisation – and it is estimated by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that as many as 28,000 jobs are at risk by 2030 if the sector is eliminated. Given that we must eradicate fossil fuels, the question becomes: how can the North sustain another huge round of job losses? Following the decline of steel, shipbuilding, textiles and many more, there was no plan in place and the Northern regions suffered for it.

The renewable energy revolution must be different, and the early signs are encouraging. The North is already home to approximately half of the UK’s renewable energy generation capacity according to the IPPR, making it no surprise that the sector has been identified as one of the region’s “prime capabilities”. Whereas we have previously argued that the regions can benefit from maximising their local specialisations, something like energy strategy must be tackled by every region together.

And if it is then the rewards could be vast, far outstripping the jobs lost in fossil fuel industries. Indeed, the transition to renewable technologies meets the foundational principles of the government’s industrial strategy: it is part of the country’s critical infrastructure and it provides people with high quality, well paid jobs in areas where they are needed desperately.

By the end of 2016 there were more than 90,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector across the North of England, and the regions could see another 46,000 added to that total by 2030 if the investment is there. That would put the North second only to Scotland in the UK.

The most obvious example of how this can be done is seen with the proliferation of off-shore wind power on the East and West coasts. Just one company, Ørsted, has spent decades building 11 operational wind farms around the UK which power 3.2 million homes a year. The majority of these are in the North and there is more planned; the Hornsea One and Two arrays off the coast of Hull are in construction and will be large enough once finished to power a further 2.3 million homes.

Britain currently has the largest off-shore wind capacity in the world and the sector is still growing. The government has recently set a target for a third of all the country’s electricity to be supplied via off-shore farms by 2030.

As the sector grows, the number of skilled jobs created in the North will also continue to increase rapidly. The government is gearing up for its latest auction in May 2019 – where companies bid for contracts to build new off-shore facilities – and it is expected that the results will be the most positive yet. The price of off-shore power generation has already reduced by more than half and further falls are expected this summer. Therefore, not only will more jobs be generated but the cost of power to the consumer will also fall, compounding the benefits of this sector for the North.

If a true renewable energy strategy is pursued by the Northern regions, and invested in properly, the potential benefits are enormous. Far from its current state where the scars of the last wave of industrialisation are still borne by places and communities, the North could lead the world again. Skilled workers will move here to be a part of the revolution and everyone will benefit from a robust, sustainable economy which contributes to the fight against climate change.

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