Oil fields dreamer will keep going

PUBLISHED: 08:06 16 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:01 22 October 2010

The region's biofuels industry was already reeling after the collapse of Global Commodities - and now farmers' leader Peter Kendall says we are lagging behind the rest of the world. Sarah Brealey looks at the future of green fuels.

The region's biofuels industry was already reeling after the collapse of Global Commodities - and now farmers' leader Peter Kendall says we are lagging behind. SARAH BREALEY looks at the future of green fuels.


When Dennis Thouless set up his company in 2001, he was doing something no one else was.

Thanks to his hard work and years of experimentation, the mid-Norfolk village of Shipdham became the somewhat unlikely home of the country's largest biodiesel producer.

Later, the multinationals got in on the act, but that did not stop Global Commodities. Expanding into a factory in Hull, it became the largest independent biofuel producer in Europe.

But after difficulties with Environment Agency regulations, coupled with a lack of new investment, the company has gone into liquidation - the business is being put up for sale as a going concern, and has already attracted some interest.

Mr Thouless described the closure as “a massive blow to the future of the biodiesel industry” - an understandable statement from a man in his position.

He points out that the rest of the world is ahead of this country in terms of biofuels production. His sentiments were echoed by Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, who says we are “bottom of the league in production in Europe”.

The problem is not the crops - East Anglian farmers already grow sugar beet, oilseed rape and wheat and are keen to grow more - but the processing plants to turn them into fuel. Currently, the biofuel crops we do grow are mostly exported.

Global Commodities was planning to move from processing chip-pan fat to creating fuel from oilseed rape, but the scheme had not got off the starting blocks.

The only hope now is the British Sugar plant at Wissington, near Downham Market, which is due to be up and running next spring. The factory will be the first bioethanol production facility in the country, making fuel from British sugar beet.

The government is making encouraging noises, but needs to put its weight firmly behind biofuels to give them a chance.

Mr Thouless said: “What we need is for the government to encourage us, like in the United States.

“We are too restricted in this country.”

James Beal, managing director of Renewables East, said what was needed was not tax breaks but a long-term vision.

“The government has made it clear what the opportunities are for the next three years. I am keen that the government gives a longer view. It is easy for a multinational to make an investment on a three-year basis but more organic businesses need to plan longer-term. I would like to see clarity about what happens beyond 2010 and to 2015.”

Farmer Andrew Ross, in Houghton St Giles, near Fakenham, is planning to sell his surplus sugar beet to the new Wissington factory next year, but would grow more biofuel crops if he had somewhere to sell them.

He said: “People just won't build the plants in this country because the tax breaks aren't good enough.

“I can't grow anything because there isn't any demand.”

Meanwhile, there are some encouraging signs, from the bioethanol pumps at Morrisons petrol stations in Norfolk and Suffolk, to the fact that Norwich Union is trialing a biofuel car that may be added to the company fleet.

A Morrisons spokesman would not be drawn on sales of bioethanol, but said they were “encouraging”, and will grow further as new flexi-fuel cars are launched.

Morrisons' bioethanol is imported from Brazil, which does not exactly enhance its green credentials.

For biofuels to be a meaningful contribution towards reducing carbon emissions, they need to be produced, processed and distributed as locally as possible.

With the right encouragement, a new generation of entrepreneurs will come forward to do just that.

Mr Beal said: “You could say Dennis was on the bleeding edge, not the cutting edge.

“The ones coming forward now have the opportunity to learn from the issues he faced, including the Environment Agency.

“Everyone feels for Dennis, but the industry as a whole will move on.

“The opportunities in this region are wider than Global Commodities.”

As for Mr Thouless, who is 72, despite the setback he has no plans to retire.

“A few years ago I said East Anglia will be the oil fields of the future, and I shall not stop working towards that.”

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Eastern Daily Press. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Eastern Daily Press