UK ports: ready for Round 3?

George Marsh

Part 2. As the UK gears up for the Round 3 offshore wind installations, George Marsh asks whether critical parts of the infrastructure – i.e. the ports – are ready. This installment looks at ports in the South and West of the UK, as well as those losing out.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the north-east coast of England appears to have lost out in its bid to host Clipper Windpower's assembly of the enormous 10 MW offshore turbine it was planning, the Britannia project. Plans were shelved by Clipper's parent company United Technologies Corporation in August after UK's Crown Estate said it would no longer buy the prototype Britannia machine.

Clipper had already received £300,000 of an intended £4.4 million grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) but it seems that payments were stopped when Clipper failed to meet certain developmental milestones. More recently, Head of Corporate affairs for the Port of Tyne, Susan Wear reported that the port is talking with other wind turbine manufacturers about the possibility of locating a new factory to a vacant site on the north bank of the River Tyne. The river adjacent to the site was recently dredged to make the port accessible to large turbine installation vessels (TIVs).

The Scottish east coast city of Dundee has been similarly disappointed, in this instance by Spanish player Gamesa's announcement that it no longer considers the harbour, operated by Forth Ports, suitable for large-scale wind turbine manufacture. This is apparently because of insufficient quayside space and lack of agreement over who will fund port upgrades. Instead, the Spanish company is looking at Leith, near Edinburgh, as a potential site for the manufacture of 5 and 7 MW offshore turbines. Dundee nevertheless still hopes to attract wind energy manufacture, having invested substantially in its central waterfront area, and city officials say that discussions with other leading players are ongoing.

Gamesa has some existing commitment to Scotland, having opened a £12.5m technology centre in Glasgow to design and develop its new 6-7 MW G14X offshore turbine, and has recently announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Leith. Gamesa has said it will take a holistic approach to its decision, embracing everything from the available workforce and supply chain to planned infrastructure and transport upgrades. The company has said it welcomes the strong, stable political support for wind energy provided by the Scottish Administration and its First Minister Alex Salmond.

Port Leith proclaims that it is Scotland's largest deep water harbour and considerable development there is being spearheaded by Forth Ports and the city council. Enclosed docks offer extensive quayside berthing, and although the harbour has lock access, dimensions of 159 m long by 31.6 m wide and 12.9 m over the sill permit entry by large vessels. Scottish Enterprise has identified Leith as being the country's best location for an offshore wind turbine integrated manufacturing facility, with ready access to offshore wind farms in the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and the Dogger Bank.

The Madrid-headquartered turbine producer could also have selected Hartlepool, a port on England's north east coast in the Tees Valley, as home for its intended £150m UK offshore manufacturing base. Owner and operator PD Ports says that Hartlepool Dock is one of the few ports in the country with the potential land bank and port handling facilities to satisfy the requirements of wind turbine manufacturing and support operations. The port is one of the closest to Dogger Bank, which is likely to see wind farm development on an epic scale.

Meanwhile GE Energy did not get as far as deciding where it would base the offshore turbine manufacturing facility it wanted to build in Britain. Originally, the US company stated that massive local demand was its main criterion in determining that it would invest in the UK, along with supportive government policies. Mark Elbourne, Chief Executive and President of GE UK, said that the UK had a unique opportunity to become a global centre of excellence in offshore wind but that the availability of suitable ports was crucial. However, since then GE’s commitment to offshore wind has apparently weakened, at least for now, and plans for a UK manufacturing facility are reportedly suspended…

Mitsubishi is investigating potential port sites and has yet to settle on any particular one. REpower, which has a large manufacturing base in Bremerhaven, accepts that the UK will become a key manufacturing base for the offshore sector and says it will select a site for a UK operation of its own depending on which Round 3 project it seems likely to secure. It envisages a 20,000 m2 site employing hundreds of people that would take about 18 months to set up. Certain other manufacturers, such as Alstom, say that there is a shortage of suitable sites and have not progressed further.

The south

Moving round to England’s south coast, Newhaven in Sussex has good potential to serve EON's Southern Array (Round 3 Zone 6) and Eneco Wind Park (Round 3 Zone 7). Privately owned and operated, the port has 1.3 km of river frontage available for vessels, extendable if required; nearly 100 hectares of hard standing suitable for wind turbine component lay-down and storage, and some 1.8 hectares of covered buildings. Further development would be needed to realise the full potential and a port masterplan envisages the provision of a further berth suitable for jack-up barges.

Further west, Shoreham Port, also well sited for Zones 6 and 7 support, has some capacity to serve as a long-term operations base.

At the central point of the south coast, the Associated British Ports (ABP) port of Southampton enjoys advantages of good shelter provided by the Isle of Wight, deep water approaches and berths, a double high water feature which keeps the tidal level high for a prolonged period and about 18 hectares of land that could be made available for offshore wind development. In the longer term, a further 323 hectares across the water from the established port could be available.

Southampton has huge experience with some of the world's largest cargo and passenger craft and could accommodate sizeable TIVs. Moreover, it is not without wind energy experience, its docks having until recently trans-shipped rotor blades manufactured by Vestas on the Isle of Wight. The port is about 80 km from the Eneco Wind Park and 50 km from EON's Southern Array. Nearby ports of Poole and Portland could host supporting workboat fleets. Southampton and other south coast ports will, though, be competing with French ports, notably Cherbourg which is making provision for Tier 1 wind energy activity.

And the west

If on the east and south coasts the story is largely one of potential yet to be unlocked and of ports facing competition, on the west coasts of the British Isles mainland European ports are less of a threat. There are also ports that have already established themselves in wind energy terms and serve as trail-blazing examples:

Mostyn, in the estuary of the River Dee, North Wales, was recently named as operations base for the €2 billion Gwynt y Mor wind farm – at 576 MW one of Europe's largest. RWE npower renewables estimates that the agreement will be worth more that £50 million to the port over the lifetime of the wind farm. The Port of Mostyn will benefit from the development of a major new operations and maintenance base, together with the creation of over 100 new skilled engineering jobs. The project is a shared investment between partners RWE Innogy, Stadtwerke München GmbH and Siemens.

RWE npower renewables’ Gwynt y More Project Director Toby Edmonds, says: "We are pleased to have been able to secure the Port of Mostyn as our home for the next 25 years. The port has already proved itself extremely capable as the base for construction and operation of North Hoyle and Rhyl Flats and the new agreement builds on this."

Vestas Wind Technology and Siemens Wind Power both service these wind farms from Mostyn. As well as being a base for general service vessels, the privately owned port has hosted a profusion of jack-up and semi-submersible installation vessels, plus RoRo freighters bringing in turbine components. A development programme undertaken over the last decade has secured 310 m of riverside berthing and lock-free access to all cargo handling areas and this has facilitated the growth of offshore wind farm construction business. The port boasts good road and rail connections and a skilled workforce.

Meanwhile, over in Northern Ireland, Belfast is on track to become one of the UK's wind energy super-hubs, especially given that Danish player DONG Energy is to establish an offshore wind turbine assembly base there. Belfast Port is funding a facility for DONG which it claims will be the first bespoke offshore wind pre-assembly and installation harbour in the UK. This, a £40m terminal that is part of a wider hub development plan, is expected to open in 2013 so that DONG Energy and its partner Scottish Power Renewables have a base from which to serve their West Duddon Sands offshore wind farm.

Belfast Harbour is in a sheltered deep water location at the head of Belfast Lough, a wide navigable inlet from the Irish Sea. The port claims to have been the only one in the island of Ireland that is next to a shipping channel while having over 100 acres of development land with zoning for port activities. It was able to offer DONG the combination of space and fast response that it needed to bring the new 50-acre development to fruition within the timescale required.

Shristian Skakkebaek, UK Country Manager for the energy company, comments: "We needed a deep water port and building space to provide scope for current and future activities. Belfast offered a harbour with particular proximity to the Irish Sea and as well as effective logistics and the right kind of people."

It was also prepared to fund the development itself and then lease it to the operator. Other advantages include a 450 m quay with appropriate craneage, a rich maritime and industrial tradition with a commensurate skilled workforce, plus operating costs said to be up to 15% lower than ports on the UK mainland.

Major wind turbine components are already manufactured in Belfast, by Harland and Wolf at the shipyard that once built the Titanic. The yard boasts the quayside space and mighty goliath cranes needed to handle large components such as the turbines and towers destined for Vattenfall's Ormonde offshore wind farm. The full turbines are pre-assembled and loaded onto TIVs for delivery offshore.

Wind turbines have also been shipped from Larne, another deep water port 22 miles east of Belfast, where the B9 Energy Group has a base for its operations and maintenance activities.

Belfast is not without competition in targeting Irish/Celtic Sea offshore activity. Liverpool, Barrow and Fleetwood are among other ports vying for the business, and even Falmouth, a deep water port on the south west coast of England, would like a slice of the action. Most of the competition is British and Irish as, for this area European mainland ports lose out on proximity.

Although UK ports face a huge opportunity to attract burgeoning wind energy business and a small number of ports have managed to do this already, others still trying require more in the way of initial funding, fast-track planning, cooperative working between authorities plus, inevitably, regional and government support. So, are UK ports ready for Round 3? Perhaps the answer is not quite yet, but they could be – given further commitment, a stable and cohesive national strategy and the necessary 'fire in the belly' at all levels to get the job done.

About the author: George Marsh: Engineering roles in high-vacuum physics, electronics, flight testing and radar led George Marsh, via technology PR, to technology journalism. He is a regular contributor to Renewable Energy Focus.

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