LONDON -- An area of rusting factories and poverty-blighted communities in southeast England is trying to rebrand itself as a sustainable business hub where green-leaning companies from around the world can plug into abundant renewable energy and gain easy access to markets in the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The Thames Gateway project, which touts itself as "40 miles of opportunity," is already home to the Olympic Park, which will stage the 2012 Olympic Games and boasts some of the country's most modern infrastructure -- as well as some of its oldest.
"We have airports, motorways and high-speed rail giving speedy access over a huge area. This is the U.K. and Europe's biggest opportunity for inwards investment," said Denis Davies, inward investment manager for Thames Gateway.
The funnel-shaped corridor, which stretches from London to the North Sea on either side of the River Thames, has direct access to the Eurostar high-speed rail link to London and the Continent as well as various airports, including Heathrow, and deepwater ports.
It hopes to regenerate an area that has had its share of social deprivation and industrial decline. It is very much on the search for the cutting-edge businesses that are starting to boom as the world edges toward developing a low-carbon future.
At the eastern end of the corridor, there are already two large offshore wind farms -- the large Thanet farm, which with 100 turbines of 3 megawatts each capacity is currently the largest offshore installation in the world, and the smaller, 90 MW Kentish Flats, with 30 turbines.
But very soon, they will be dwarfed by the London Array, which will eventually have 275 turbines with a combined capacity of 1 gigawatt, making it easily the biggest offshore wind farm in the world.
The piles have just been driven for the first of the giant 3.6 MW capacity turbines, which will tower 87 meters (285 feet) above the waves and have blades 60 meters (197 feet) long from hub to tip. Phase One, with 175 turbines and with two substations offshore and one onshore, and covering 100 square kilometers (37 square miles), should start generating power before next year's Olympic Games.
Some issues with birds and their watchers
"Phase two, which should be completed by 2013, depends on economics and birds -- red-throated divers, to be precise," said Philip Jones of the London Array project. "We are having a lot of negotiations with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ... which has been very supportive."
Under a negotiated deal between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the project's backers, which comprise Denmark's Dong Energy with 50 percent, Germany's E.ON with 30 percent and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates' Masdar with 20 percent, phase two will not go ahead until an environmental impact assessment has been conducted on the effect of the first phase on the red-throated divers. The birds were found to have an internationally important wintering population in the area that was previously unknown.
At present, virtually all of the facilities -- and the skills -- to make the giant turbines are on the Continent -- which means that the local area in England will reap little immediate benefit from the London Array and even less in the longer term once it has been completed.
But part of the plan is to persuade the equipment manufacturers such as Germany's Siemens to build plants in the area and use them as a base of operations to supply the thousands of turbines that will be needed if the United Kingdom is to have any chance of meeting the 15 percent green energy target it has been assigned by the European Union.
This means the country must get about one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, of which the majority is expected to come from wind. The figure is currently about 6 percent.
That, in turn, suggests that the country needs to install about 8,000 offshore turbines over the next nine years, or an average of about 17 a week or 2.4 a day, every day.
Luring Europe's wind business onshore
Questions over whether this is realistic or even remotely achievable tend to be shrugged off with the answer that the government has set the target -- and granted very generous incentives -- and industry simply has to try to achieve it.
The wind industry is seriously looking at the United Kingdom to relocate the blade-, turbine- and tower-making plants that will be needed to even begin to meet the daunting challenge -- and the Thames Gateway wants a major piece of the action that will bring thousands of jobs as well as an array of new skills that will be in demand globally as the push for low-carbon energy expands.
"This is the beginning of something much bigger than offshore wind," said Brian White, director of regeneration services at Thanet District Council in northern Kent. "These skills will be salable around the world."
And it is not just wind power that the gateway's planners are interested in. Closer to London, in what can only be described as an industrial wasteland, the outlines of a green enterprise district are taking shape.
The 60-acre London Sustainable Industries Park aims to attract industries that will recycle waste into energy, products or goods from material that historically has gone to landfill. The eventual aim is to obtain all the raw materials from waste generated locally -- reducing transport costs and carbon at the same time as cutting the need for increasingly scarce and expensive landfill and producing something usable.
Seeing 'opportunity' in plastic bottles and food waste
"Green development has gone beyond an issue and become an opportunity," said Mark Bradbury of the London Thames Gateway Development Corp. "We think our model is the future for large cities, none of whom are dealing with their waste holistically."
"There is the potential here that if a lorry full of waste comes into this site, none of it ever leaves again as waste. That happens nowhere else in the world. It will eliminate waste miles," he added.
One business has already set up there and is planning to expand. Closed Loop Recycling is the world's first food-grade bottle recycling plant.
It takes used plastic bottles, sorts them mechanically and then manually into those it can and cannot use, and then, using highly sophisticated machinery in a washing, cleansing, chopping and melting process, produces pellets that are so pure and made in such hygienic conditions that they can go back to the food and drink packaging industry as a feedstock.
It currently handles 35,000 metric tons of recovered plastic bottles a year -- saving some 52,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year in the process -- and plans to nearly double capacity to 60,000 metric tons a year.
But Bradbury and the local governments have far bigger plans for the site. A plant to produce energy from food waste is due to set up there later this year with another plant to recycle wastepaper and batteries also due to move in.
There are even plans to build eco-houses on the site, which, although undoubtedly an industrial park, aims to be so landscaped as to be an attractive dwelling place, as well.
"This is a sustainable home for sustainable businesses. We are trying to make it resemble a business park rather than an industrial park. Planners and developers need to get more imaginative. There is no one place that has got it right. We can learn from some, and they can learn from us," Bradbury said.