A group of hub ports have already emerged, supported by smaller harbours that will take on specialised roles.Some will compete for business, others will happily co-exist, serving their own geographic hinterland (click on map below).
"Ports have to accommodate vessels engaged in installation of turbines and the building of turbine foundations, substation jackets and topsides, array cables and export cables," said Julian Brown, a partner at offshore wind consultancy BVG, at a recent Windpower Monthly conference. "Ports have to have the water depth, quayside and land to accommodate all these." Around the UK, the Medway Ports in Kent, Tyne, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Hartlepool, Lowestoft and Dundee all meet some of these criteria, as does Belfast and Birkenhead for the Irish Sea, he says.
"Nearshore wind farms need to accommodate small-crew vessel access 24/7, provide a safe haven and workshop facilities," he said. "Distant offshore wind farms require an offshore crew terminal, large vessels and accommodation-platform support, have airport and rail-terminal access, be near population centres and offer onshore accommodation, workshops and stores."
BVG suggests that in the UK alone — where the third round of project construction and installation is due to begin next year — offshore ports will require a total investment of £70 billion (EUR80 billion), with perhaps 50% of that needed for construction and coming directly from the balance sheets of the investing companies. The remainder will have to be raised through project financing and possible Green Investment Bank support.
Below are some of the key European offshore ports and some of the smaller UK ports, which may take on more specialised but still vital roles supporting offshore wind.
Aberdeen Harbour, Scotland
Forty-year offshore legacy, deep-water quay capability
At the epicentre of the North Sea oil and gas industry for four decades, Aberdeen Harbour, a not-for-profit, autonomous-trust port, has a long association with Europe's offshore-energy sector.
Its CEO Colin Parker believes its track record in the offshore-energy field can serve the wind sector well. "We have expertise in offshore engineering born out of North Sea oil and gas," he says. "The port has built infrastructure, which gives it large offshore vessel capability. We have quayside and backup areas already here and are now spending £30 million on a new 400-metre deep-water quay."
Enhancements are planned to accommodate large, deep-water offshore wind farm construction and maintenance vessels. "We would like to widen the 34-metre navigation channel to a width of 60 metres and deepen the harbour entrance," he says. "To create space, we would need to remove and rebuild the two large Telford Dock transit sheds."
But the environmental impact of such enhancements would need to be considered. The River Dee, which flows through Aberdeen, is a special conservation area famous for its salmon fishing and the harbour entrance has an occasional dolphin population.
"Ports are continuously evolving and you have to adapt," says Parker. He has also seen other ports emerge as hubs to offshore wind, including Bremerhaven. "Bremerhaven has some turbine manufacturing. At Aberdeen we would hope to have a turbine-assembly facility," he says.
Competition comes from closer to home too, in particular from the Scottish ports of Dundee and Forth, but Parker is sanguine about the future. "We are at Round 3 now," he says. "When we move to Rounds 4, 5 and 6, there could be work for everybody."
Port of Bremerhaven, Germany
European wind leader, Repower base, R&D centre
The Port of Bremerhaven is on the Weser Estuary in northern Germany. It was founded in 1827 as the seaport for the city of Bremen, 50km inland up-river. In the 1950s, it began to handle roll-off cargoes. A new container terminal was built in 1968, with subsequent expansion until economic decline in the 1980s.
The port saw a revival in 2001, largely stimulated by offshore wind and, since then, six wind-energy-equipment manufacturers and suppliers, including Repower Systems, and two research and development centres have been established at Bremerhaven.
The port is managed by Bremenports on behalf of the city of Bremen. The company now looks after 34 kilometres of quays, 186 kilometres of port railway tracks, 56 bridges, five locks and 9km of docks.
Bremerhaven handles around 75 million tonnes of cargo a year - including more than two million vehicles in 2010 - and more cars pass through the port than any other European city apart from Rotterdam, Netherlands. It also boasts the largest closed-container handling facility in Europe and is the fourth-biggest container port in Europe. And now it is the biggest port for the wind business, serving German offshore wind farms.
Port of Esbjerg, Denmark
Early developer, deep water, ongoing dock expansion
The Port of Esbjerg lies on the west coast of the Jutland peninsula in south-west Denmark. Built in 1868, it soon became Denmark's biggest fishing harbour and serves what has become the country's fifth-largest city.
The largest Danish port, it has an area of 3.5 square kilometres with 10 kilometres of quays and a water depth of 4-10 metres. It was one of the first to serve the offshore wind industry. It now offers wharves that specialise in cargoes, including bulk, parcels, containers, offshore, offshore refrigerated and frozen cargo. It also serves passenger traffic and ferries.
Over the past few years, Esbjerg has experienced a substantial increase in demand for port facilities and an expansion plan was launched this year to add another 650,000 square metres of dock capacity at a cost of DKK 5,000 million (EUR671 million).
Offshore wind is the big driver behind the expansion, which is due to open in 2013 and will feature one kilometre long quays. Port director Ole Ingrisch says: "We expect the North Sea offshore-wind market to boom in the coming years. England, Germany and the Netherlands have launched ambitious programmes and we also anticipate growth in our home market."
Port of Hull, England
Deep water, Round 3 proximity, planned Siemens base
Situated on the north bank of the River Humber in north-east England, the Port of Hull combines regular short-sea services to continental Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic States and deep-sea traffic worldwide.
The port is one of 21 in the UK owned and operated by the largest port company in the country, Associated British Ports, which handles transport, haulage and terminal operations, ship's agency, dredging and marine consultancy.
A leading timber-handling and passenger port, Hull is now planning to expand as a major wind hub, regenerating an existing port complex, which is adjacent to a natural deep-water channel. The new Green Port Hull will be perfectly positioned for the receipt of import cargo, component manufacture and the dispatch of wind turbines for installation out at sea, says senior project manager Phil Coombes. Permitting approval has already been given for a 600-metre riverside berth, and an additional 2.67 square kilometres of development land has been earmarked to support the renewable industries, he says.
Plans are proving successful, with Siemens announcing earlier this year that it had chosen Hull to develop its new offshore wind-turbine manufacturing and export facility.
Port of Ostend, Belgium
Key location, deep water, strong transport links
The publicly owned Port of Ostend is on the coast of Belgian Flanders where the English Channel meets the North Sea. It is the smallest of four sea ports in Flanders but has recently been expanded as a roll-on roll-off port, handling 300,000 units a year, many to and from the UK.
There are two inner docks, several quays in the outer port and quays along the Ostend-Bruges-Ghent canal. Sea-dredged materials are the main import products, along with iron and silicon alloys, building materials, timber and fertilisers. Ostend also has a cross channel ferry and cruise ship terminal.
Its potential for servicing Belgium's offshore-wind sector is now attracting advocates. Frank Coenen, CEO of Belwind, the country's biggest wind developer, says he would like to see Ostend as the pre-eminent hub port on the southern Channel and North Sea coast.
"I believe Ostend is becoming the best-equipped harbour for North Sea operations" he said. "And it is lower-cost than some privately operated ports in the UK."
Port of Sheerness, England
Thames Estuary, deep water, lock free, Vestas base
Owned by Peel Ports, Britain's second largest ports group, Sheerness is part of the Medway Ports complex, which operates 27 navigable miles of the River Medway in Kent, south-east England, and includes the former naval dockyard at Chatham. The port is sited on the Isle of Sheppey at the confluence of the Medway and Thames and offers deep-water facilities. It is unaffected by tides, has no locks, and offers nine berths, six of which have roll-on roll-off facilities.
Nearly 700,000 tonnes a year of fresh produce go through the port, along with half a million tonnes of forest products and 300,000 tonnes of general cargo. Recently it has added liquefied natural gas to the list.
Offshore-wind construction is also part of its business, being in close proximity to southern wind projects in the North Sea, notably the 1GW London Array being constructed in the outer Thames Estuary by Dong Energy, E.on and Masdar. Sheerness and the nearby port of Ramsgate are serving the construction of London Array and the services for the operating Thanet wind farm.
But the biggest boost for Sheerness as a wind port came in May when Danish manucturer Vestas signed an option agreement for 70 hectares of land to be used for production from 2015 of the new V164 7MW purpose-built offshore turbine. The option to build manufacturing and installation facilities lasts for one year, with a possibility to extend another 12 months.
"We have shown our intentions to make major investments and job creation," Vestas' offshore president Anders Soe-Jensen said at the announcement.
SMALLER PLAYERS SERVING THE INDUSTRY
These smaller ports, all owned by Associated British Ports, have and are likely to have significant involvement in offshore wind farms, being close to key North Sea and Irish Sea offshore-wind sites.
Port of Barrow
Barrow has played a role as a construction and assembly port for the Barrow, Robin Rigg and Walney offshore wind farms.
Situated 15 miles (24 kilometres) from the proposed 4.2GW Round 3 Irish Sea site, preliminary designs have been developed for a berth in the Walney Channel for the loading of wide-beamed jack-up rigs.
Port of Fleetwood
Suitable as a supply base for Irish Sea wind farms, Fleetwood can accommodate 4.2-metre vessels.
Ports of Grimsby & Immingham
On the south bank of the Humber, these ports are situated between the Dogger Bank zone to the north and the Norfolk zone to the south, with the Hornsea zone 40 miles directly offshore. Siemens, Centrica and RES operate here.
Capable of serving the construction of the Bristol Channel zone wind farm, plans have been drawn up for a quayside facility for turbines, with deep-water access.
Port of Swansea
Ideally located to serve both the assembly and service needs of wind and tidal projects being developed in the Bristol Channel.
A 16-hectare site is already available and further land has potential to develop service facilities.
Port of Lowestoft
Having supported the North Sea oil and gas industry for more than 30 years, Lowestoft was a construction base for the Scroby Sands wind farm and is now the service base for the Greater Gabbard, being a base for catamaran supply vessels and helicopters.
It is 16 miles from the Round 3 East Anglia Array project.
Port of Southampton
For many years, this was the intermediate shipping port for Vestas' former production facility on the Isle of Wight. An area of 323 hectares is earmarked for port expansion.
The ABP Marine Environmental Research consultancy is also here.