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Offshore options
Planning – 19 November 2010

Government funding for the renewable energy sector is giving port operators and coastal authorities an impetus to look at what they can do to support offshore wind development, Mark Smulian finds

Amid the carnage of last month's public spending review, there is one small corner of the economy that has cause to smile. An extra 60 million was allocated by the government for buildings and infrastructure at ports to meet the needs of the offshore wind power industry. This figure was subsequently topped up with a further 70 million for Scotland alone.

The sheer size of wind turbines - at 100m or more in height - makes road or rail transport of whole structures from factories to the coast problematic. __The obvious solution is to move the components to coastal assembly sites from which turbines can be carried by sea to their eventual locations. This is good news for UK ports, which can see a new income stream opening up as they provide land for the industry and berthing for the vessels needed.

Some coastal authorities should stand by for planning applications for large assembly sheds at ports, proposals for road and rail improvements for access and, just possibly, a flow of follow-on developments as the local economies in the areas concerned benefit from the impetus provided by green jobs.

The 60 million fund for ports in England is one of the few spending plans to have survived from the previous government. The Scottish Government has set up a separate 70 million fund with different eligibility rules. The situation is not yet clear in Wales. __Behind this activity, however, is prime minister David Cameron's declaration at the launch of the national infrastructure plan last month that the wind industry could create 70,000 jobs.

"We need thousands of offshore turbines in the next decade and beyond to help secure private sector investment in this technology. We're providing up to 60 million to meet the needs of offshore wind infrastructure at our ports," Cameron told the CBI.

Neither the factories nor these large port sites currently exist and that, understandably, is putting off private investors. So we're stepping in."

He added that the Crown Estate, which owns the sea bed, will "work with interested ports and manufacturers to realise the potential of their sites".Meanwhile, environment and climate change secretary Chris Huhne revealed that GE, Gamesa and Siemens are already proposing to open manufacturing plants at coastal locations.

Renewable UK, the renewable energy industry trade association, welcomes this money and activity and detects "an immediate positive reaction from turbine manufacturers". But there is a catch. The 60 million is available only to ports in places with assisted area status. On the English coast, this means the North East from Teesside to mid-Northumberland, the Humber Estuary, the Isle of Thanet, Cornwall, west Cumbria and parts of Merseyside.

Investment focuses on east coast sites

Port development activity can of course take place elsewhere without government aid. But according to BVG consultancy associate Chris Willow, who helped to produce the UK Ports for the Offshore Wind Industry - Time to Act report for DECC last year, activity of all kinds is likely to be focused on the east coast.

"The North Sea is good wind territory, the water is not as deep to work in as the Atlantic and there is access to markets in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany," Willow explains. "The Humber Estuary and the North East coast are good places for turbine assembly because they are near many of the large wind farms, but there is also activity in other east coast estuaries right down as far as Sheerness."

Able UK's proposed Marine Energy Park project near Immingham in North Lincolnshire illustrates the kinds of developments that might come forward as ports are reconfigured to support the wind industry. This 400 million project would provide for manufacture, commissioning, installation and eventual recycling of offshore turbines on a 327ha site with a 4km river frontage. The proposal is due to be determined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

"The potential demand is huge," says Able UK executive chairman Peter Stephenson. "For example, the three offshore wind areas of Dogger Bank, Hornsea and Norfolk Bank will require around 5,000 turbines to deliver their full capacity."

The BVG report warns that a "perceived lack of UK port availability and capacity is seen by European wind turbine manufacturers and offshore wind developers as a disincentive to investing in UK projects". It confirms that sufficient port sites are available but adds that, since most are privately owned, "the market alone is unlikely to deliver these ports in the time frame required without government intervention".

Now work can start, with "intervention" there in the shape of the new fund. BVG's findings set down an idea of what will be needed. The consultants conclude that to handle 100 turbines a year, a port would typically need 80,000m2 of space for assembly, 200m to 300m of quayside, access for vessels 140m long with a 6m draft and good transport links to bring in components.

The government money may also fill a confidence gap. Port owners interviewed by BVG complained that the wind industry is "reluctant to commit to contracts or tenancies which would allow specific investment in terms of quayside or land development for the long term". Even so, owners made plain their keenness "to engage with the wind industry to both understand the challenges and the opportunities".

David Marshall, an RTPI transport planning network member who runs the Spatial Synergy planning consultancy and is active in this field, says conversion of ports to serve the wind industry will see "a considerable amount of work for planners and is very much a growth area". In the North East, "smaller and almost moribund ports such as Sunderland are already seeing a burst of activity from this".

Turbine assembly points to sheds need

The nature of the development needed is essentially large sheds in which turbine components can be assembled. They may not have any particular aesthetic merit, but since most ports are brownfield sites or former shipyards they may not be greatly visually intrusive either. __Even small towns such as Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk have seen harbour developments to service wind farms, Marshall points out.

"The planning applications will be for very large sheds but there will also be a lot of cast components, so there will be some need for new foundries," Willow predicts. Turbines are getting larger too, meaning the industry will need to build facilities that allow space to cope with a steady increase in the structures' size. __"Typically turbines now have a capacity up to 3.6MW, but manufacturers are now looking to build 6MW and even 10MW devices," he notes.

RenewableUK members expect port owners to be keen to work with them on the significant volume of new construction needed. National campaigns director Adam Bell says: "Port infrastructure is not up to scratch, but this is a new income stream for port owners so we expect them to be very keen. "It's about upgrading port infrastructure to handle offshore wind industry installations. That may need wider roads, ports dredged deeper for ships to enter and improvements to railways."

Marshall points to another dimension for planners. "This work has to mesh with the new marine planning regime when harbour facilities are built," he says. "The Marine Management Organisation's work is new, but planners on land will certainly have to pay attention to the effects of these projects on the marine environment." Bell expects the government funds to be allocated to consortia of port owners and wind industry operators to support a bulge of building work from 2011 to 2014. While uncertainty grips the residential and commercial development markets, the port industry should at least provide a source of solid growth in areas that need it.

Wind industry leaders

Scotland has ploughed more public money into support for converting ports for wind industry manufacture and assembly than England. It aims to take advantage of the gusts that give the country a quarter of Europe's total wind resource, according to ministers.

The Holyrood government has launched a 70 million national renewable infrastructure fund for which any port operator may lodge a bid. Ministers say they expect to attract sufficient private sector investment to create 28,000 jobs and an industry worth 7.1 billion over the next decade.

"The offshore wind industry is seeking leadership and immediate support from government and we are determined to provide that," says first minister Alex Salmond. "We are determined to act decisively to trigger vital capital investment to launch the next phase of Scotland's renewables revolution."

The fund is administered by Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise and expressions of interest must be lodged by 10 December. Potential manufacture and assembly sites have already been identified at Leith, Dundee, Nigg, Methil, Hunterston, Aberdeen, Arnish, Ardersier, Campbeltown, Kishorn and Peterhead.