Vice Chancellor of Aston University Julia King has accused Jaguar Land Rover of being “behind the curve” in its progress in embracing sustainable technologies. Anna Blackaby looks at how the rest of the Midlands’ economy is performing in the low carbon stakes.
Many commentators, including the economist who authored the hard-hitting 2006 report on climate change Lord Stern, have said the recession looming overhead offers an opportunity to resculpt the UK economy in a low-carbon format.
And in a move reminiscent of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 30s, Gordon Brown has announced plans to create 100,000 new jobs by investing in public works, including pumping cash into schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
He also earmarked the low-carbon sector as a potential for job creation, even claiming his plans would outstrip Barack Obama’s planned multi-billion-dollar “Green New Deal” relative to the size of Britain’s economy.
But if a new green economy is set to emerge that will, fingers crossed, pull the UK out of the economic doldrums, how is the West Midlands placed to take advantage of the opportunities this will offer?
According to Advantage West Midlands (AWM), the region has two key strengths – one is the new technology being developed in the region, such as the hydrogen energy research being carried out at two key West Midland universities.
The other strong point for the Midlands, according to AWM, is the traditional engineering strength of the region which is in the process of diversifying into new fields, such as the supply of components to emerging industries like wind and marine energy.
Ralph Hepworth, Advantage West Midlands environmental technologies cluster manager, said: “We have the potential to take a lead in hydrogen technology and we have the ability to take a strong position in electrical engineering for low carbon technology.
“That’s what the Midlands does well – we make bits.
“There are lots of companies who make products that can be used with wind turbines – those that make the nuts and bolts and ironmongery and a lot of these traditional companies have moved into the supply of renewable energies.
“For example, there is a company called Hydratight, based in the Black Country, that make the spanners that do up all the bolts on wind turbines.”
But Mr Hepworth expressed doubt over the question of whether the low-carbon sector could eventually provide deliverance from the swathes of job losses being seen across the region.
Mr Hepworth said: “It has the capability to replace some of those job losses. We know it’s a job generator from our experience over the past five years.
“I wouldn’t say it has the capability to fully replace the jobs but it does have the ability to make an awful lot of difference.”
Despite its long term potential, the low carbon sector is also having to battle the same headwinds facing the rest of UK industry.
Advantage West Midland sustainable future researcher Thomas Anderson added: “Lack of credit is one of the causes of job loses and a lot of businesses in the environmental sector have the same problems.”
One of the new cleantech areas where the West Midlands has emerged as a viable player on the world stage is the field of hydrogen fuel technology.
The University of Birmingham is home to the Birmingham Science City Hydrogen
Energy project which has received £6.5million of investment from Advantage West Midlands to develop the region as a centre of excellence in hydrogen energy research.
Professor Kevin Kendall of the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham said: “It’s the hydrogen energy sector where I think we are ahead – we are beating London as they have pulled back a bit now they have got a new mayor but there is competition from Scotland, the North East and Wales.
“The investment that AWM has put in has had quite an effect.
But he added: “However, we lag way behind Germany in our progress.
“Hamburg, the second city in Germany has nine hydrogen buses, several hydrogen filling stations, a lot of wind turbines, and great ambition for expansion of these green technologies.
“By comparison, we have no hydrogen buses, one hydrogen station which we installed last year at the University of Birmingham and few wind turbines.”
He also singled out the specialist vehicle industry as a rising star for the Midlands, which is home to companies such as Coventry-based Modec, a maker of zero-emission commercial vehicles.
“The region has a unique range of specialised car companies, mainly SMEs, and these could gear up to produce thousands of green vehicles in the next couple of years if the incentives were introduced.”
But in the broader environmental sector, Prof Kendall said the UK lagged well behind other countries, citing Germany Japan and the US as established leaders where green technology businesses had received proactive support from governments.
“Overall the UK is behind Germany across all the green technology sectors and needs a vigorous shake-up,” he said.
“In areas like wind and biomass, the Germans are well ahead as a result of government subsidies.”
But Prof Kendall is optimistic the low-carbon economy could eventually provide a major source of employment, pointing out that the Birmingham Science City Hydrogen Energy project is already ahead of its schedule in creating jobs.
However he cautioned that the UK faces several challenges before it can get to a stage where the sector was able to provide significant shelter from the economic downturn.
“Whether the industry can continue through this crisis is another question.
“There is no doubt that the green economy can create new jobs.
“It’s a question of the areas where we can catch up with the competition – with the German, Japanese and Americans. It’s a question of picking up which areas we have the strengths and focus on that.”