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Floating offshore wind plans at the mercy of port predicament

Plans are afoot in the Celtic Sea for 4.5 GW of floating offshore wind. A shortfall in port capacity challenges these plans.

The Crown Estate aims to get 4.5 GW of floating offshore wind up and running in the Celtic Sea. To achieve this ambitious goal, though, the government will need to tackle onshore issues – most notably around port capacity.

“Ports aren’t suitable or ready at the moment, that’s due to a host of historical and geographical reasons,” Sorcha Versteeg, country director for the UK and Ireland at K2 Management, said.

Versteeg was commenting on the Crown Estate’s plan to secure three wind farm projects, with 4.5 GW of capacity.

Big hopes

The agency held a bidders day in Swansea at the end of January to set out the plans for Round 5. The round officially launched in February, with the ultimate aim of reaching Agreement for Lease (AfL) in the second quarter of 2025.

Planning for the 4.5 GW of capacity involves some major plans – and some major hopes. The Crown Estate said the three farms would include more than 260 turbines, with more than 1,000 anchors, 300 km of mooring lines and nearly 900 km of cables.

According to information from the Crown Estate, the areas have wind speeds with more than 10 metres per second, in water depths from 68 to 88 metres.

According to a study from Lumen Energy, the projects may create 5,300 new jobs and up to £1.4 billion for the UK economy.

Equinor workers on their way to the floating offshore HyWind Scotland project
Equinor workers on their way to HyWind Scotland

The Crown Estate has taken some significant steps to drive success in Round 5. Importantly, it has defined the three project areas in the most commercially attractive areas in the Celtic Sea, close to south Wales and southwest England.

Based on these areas, it has begun work on a number of local assessments, such as pre-consent surveys, habitats regulations assessment (HRA) and design recommendations for power offtake.

“From a developer’s perspective, that’s really beneficial,” Versteeg said. “That mitigates a lot of the risks that might delay construction. It helps assist developers in array design and layout. As a result, that should be beneficial for the Crown Estate.”

And developers are clearly interested. EDF Renewables UK, Ireland’s ESB and CPP Investments-backed Reventus Power have teamed up to back the Gwynt Glas project. The plan pre-dates Round 5 but the backers plan to bid it into the offering.

Crown Estate map showing three areas for floating offshore wind projects

Port squeeze

While the planners have made good progress on this front, provision of ports is lacking. Renewable UK, in a report last year, said the country needed to invest £4 billion in ports.

The government closed its Floating Offshore Wind Manufacturing Investment Scheme (FLOWMIS) in 2023. This aims to provide £160 million for port development. In March this year, the government tipped Cromarty Firth and Port Talbot to move ahead with this support.

“We’re a long way from what industry feels is required to bring these up to the level required,” K2 Management’s country director said.

Given the Crown Estate’s target of awarding projects in 2025, ports will be required within three to five years. “There’s a risk that we might not achieve that timeline. The industry needs to come together and ensure close collaboration, but we also need the government to listen and react.”

Contracts for a wind farm at a port may run for two to three years. However, the expected payback for a port expansion project is eight to 10 years. Therefore, for port plans to move ahead, they need line of sight on near-term contracts but also a longer pipeline of activity.

Versteeg noted the risk of a round going badly, as seen with the AR5 offering last year. While saying it was unlikely that there would be no bids for the Celtic Sea’s plans, “it’s key to get this round right”.

Crown Estate graph showing offshore wind pipeline in the UK

Co-location needs

The need is not just to secure port space alone. The facilities will need manufacturing space in order to support the floating wind plans.

“There’s a risk that floating components are damaged when they’re transported. With fixed bottom [turbines], more can be transported,” Versteeg said. “And it’s not just about transportation. Floating wind facilities will need to be fixed and maintained close to where they’re deployed. It’s a huge project and ports need to be able to provide full wraparound facilities.”

Developers could commission equipment in sections and transport from elsewhere, such as in Europe. But they would still need to be integrated close or at the deployment site, Versteeg said. “It’s just technically not possible if the port is not ready. It’s a technical issue, it’s not just economics.”

As Crown Estate has pointed out, there are substantial rewards that will derive to the local community. The K2 official said there were “huge economic benefits” to local communities, with “thousands of long-term jobs”. While most of the jobs are likely to be early on, the floating facilities will need continued over maintenance over the next 20-40 years.

“There’s a strong argument for this work. Particularly in areas where the younger generations have tended to leave in order to find work. These projects will attract communities back.”

According to the Celtic Sea Blueprint, the minimum port size needed is 25.5 hectares. Establishing ports “that can support the assembly and manufacture of steel and/or concrete platforms is seen as a critical challenge/opportunity”.

Staged growth

Associated British Ports (ABP) has published a report on its Port Talbot facility, with an eye on the floating offshore wind market.

The company has a three-stage plan to tackle floating offshore projects at the port, starting with a heavy lift facility. This would allow the port to assemble components made elsewhere, such as combining the turbine generator equipment with substructures before towing.

The scale of projects committed to thus far is not enough to trigger the larger-scale investments. However, a second stage would involve a new quay and laydown area. The quay might be 300 metres and offer a 12 metre berthing option. This phase would involve fabrication, painting and finishing of substructures at the facility.

It is only with the third stage, though, that Port Talbot would really develop manufacturing capacity. ABP drew comparisons with its Green Port Hull facility, which drew in government support and Siemens.

ABP has recently picked Knight Frank to help market the company’s five ports in south Wales. An ABP official, Helen Thomas, said the aim was to “market our extensive Welsh property portfolio and to help highlight the opportunities available at our Welsh ports, which includes unrivalled development options and multimodal logistics links”.

In addition to Port Talbot, ABP also has Barry, Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.

Political plans

The UK is heading towards a general election, most likely in the autumn. At this vote, most polls suggest the Labour Party will win and form the new government.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, on April 18, set out his plans for a £1.8bn investment over five years in ports, via the National Wealth Fund. This comes under the party’s Green Prosperity Plan.

Efforts to win over coastal communities makes sense, given Labour’s push to win seats in the so-called “Sea Wall”. The Fabian Society, in February, noted Labour was on course for 52% of the votes in these 108 constituencies in England and Wales. However, it also noted there was a threat from undecided and Reform voters, who may yet swing behind the Conservatives.

Versteeg said a change in government “could be potentially positive. There have been mixed signals in recent months from the sitting government … the impression is its not as focused on net zero and the transition.”

Expanding ports, though, is not straightforward. The K2 official noted that nearly all coastline in the area is privately owned. “There’s not huge areas available for the development of suitable ports. There’s a need for huge lay down areas on the quayside, deepwater facilities and huge areas for O&M – that’s an ongoing need.”

Developers have an incentive to delivering port facilities, but the politics may be challenging.

“Even if the money can be found and the developer is investing, space is an issue.” A move to purchase land compulsorily would be one way in which government could secure space, but this would be highly contentious.

“This is not something developers would be keen to do. They work closely with stakeholders, they need local support and the local community to support developments,” Versteeg said. “Developers need government to lead that process of expanding ports.”  

Pain points

The UK has set a target to reach 5 GW of floating offshore wind by 2030. Globally, as of 2023, there is around 300 MW of floating offshore wind capacity.

The K2 executive said the UK aim “may be ambitious … but it’s important to have targets to aim for, and they should be difficult to achieve.”

Round 5 is not the only plans afoot in the Celtic Sea. The 100 MW floating offshore Erebus project is due to begin construction in 2025 and begin generating in 2026.

The appeal of floating wind is clear. Assuming costs can come down, the technology will open up untapped areas that would be impossible for fixed bottom. The challenge will to be get through the teething stages with as little pain as possible.

Investments in ports would go a long way in such pain reduction. Ports – and manufacturing and service facilities – should provide a means to win over local communities, through local jobs. There are clear challenges, not least in land ownership, but success is crucial.

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