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European ports show the way for major offshore wind-farm development

Ireland can learn from the most ambitious facilities in Europe scaling up for floating offshore technology

The scale of what is required to be a big player in the supply chain for Europe’s emerging floating wind farm sector is beyond most people’s grasp, according to Jesper Bank, chief commercial officer of the Port of Esbjerg in Denmark.

He displays an impressive drone shot of the vast quayside space currently being used to service offshore wind, with an array of turbine towers and blades neatly laid out before shipping to the North Sea. “These pictures are ready for the museum,” he says at a briefing in Bilbao on the fringes of the recent WindEurope annual gathering.

“There’s a capacity issue today; in five years’ time it will be a tremendous problem,” he adds.

Since 2001, 23.6 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind turbines have been shipped from the port. The bottom line, he believes, is no port is specifically designated for offshore renewable energy. That means bigger quaysides, deeper harbours, the ability to cater easily for trucks longer than 100 metres and large landbanks.


Designers today are developing 18 megawatt (MW) turbines with a 280-metre rotor diameter, he says; soon it will be 20MW and even bigger.

This might be considered a matter for Europe’s megaports and of little relevance to Ireland, but it is State policy to have 20GW of offshore wind by 2040, rising to 37GW by 2050 to generate up to 10 times more electricity than national demand – and hence become a renewables exporter (of electrons or green hydrogen) with ports matching that ambition.

Bank’s presentation shows how Esbjerg is pivoting to become one of those specialist ports. Given what it once was – a modest fishing port – there are big lessons for Irish ports wishing to do likewise. He repeatedly highlights the social impacts reaped at each stage of its natural progression.

Once employing 10,000 jobs in fishing, overfishing meant switching to oil and gas, which generated 2,400 jobs from the 1970s on. Since 2000, more than 4,000 jobs in renewables have been generated, as oil companies turned into renewable energy companies in the region, ranging across installation, manufacturing and servicing wind farms.

Companies there represent the entire wind industry supply chain – which will soon include green hydrogen production.

“There’s true innovation,” he says, pointing to its battery system development. There is a rule of thumb which, he suggests, means the installation of 1GW in the broadest sense is equivalent to 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

But with the ever-increasing size of turbines, vessels and logistical equipment, combined with a dramatic increase in market size, port capacity has become a bottleneck.

“Investments are lagging behind, as the need for adequate port infrastructure is increasing,” he says. “The offshore wind industry needs more investment than a local market can support. To justify the necessary investments, it is important to adopt a more regional or global perspective. This is the main lesson learned from the experience of Port Esbjerg, which can help the industry reach its full potential.”

Spain and France are planning to scale up offshore wind with emphasis on floating wind, belying suggestions it is an immature technology.

Port-La Nouvelle, near Narbonne, in southern France is the only port with dedicated facilities to build and assemble offshore floating wind turbines close to the best windy location in the western Mediterranean, says Thomas Debize, its floating offshore wind project engineer.

The port is publicly owned by Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée, the second-largest region in France, and privately managed. It is spending more than €680 million enlarging facilities, with funding secured through the regional government to ensure it does not transgress EU state aid rules.

New deep-sea infrastructure is under construction and due to be in use by 2026 to “increase the existing traffic and expand into new activities like those related to marine renewables, hydrogen production and low-carbon logistics”, Debize says.

The port will expand from 60 to 210 hectares, and water depth will reach 16 metres to accommodate ships up to 80,000 deadweight tonnes. Some 40 hectares will be dedicated to storing and assembling turbine parts.

In tandem with this, the port is supporting two floating pilot projects. A joint venture called EFGL is building three 10MW floating turbines 16km off the coast of Leucate and Le Barcarès close to the Spanish border, while Eolmed is installing three 10MW turbines 15km off the nearby coastal town of Gruissan.

Backing at regional-government level derisked the port’s expansion, Debize says. The priority now – having got the private sector on board, including Euroports – is to ensure a skilled workforce is integrated into the region “to be ready for the commercial [wind] farms” coming down the tracks.

The emphasis is on flexibility because of likely changes to turbine size and the type of technology used.

A Wind Energy Ireland national ports study last year found that only Belfast’s D1 facility is entirely suitable to support fixed-bottom construction, with limited infrastructure to support floating wind infrastructure. It highlighted how funding is the crux issue but demonstrated how State support for port infrastructure is common throughout Europe.

Case studies in the report also highlighted the positive societal impact generated by port infrastructure projects, including those at Port-La Nouvelle, which attracted private investment following the success of the initial partly state-funded projects.

“The establishment of these port hubs has served to act as a catalyst for the supply chain with a significant number of jobs created around the offshore renewable energy port locations,” it added.

Challenges in funding offshore renewable energy ports is not unique to Ireland. Across Europe and the United States, ports and the supply chain are experiencing similar issues. In Scotland, a partnered approach with the Scottish government is in place, with developers working alongside the government on a strategic investment model for ports and supply chains.

A similar model could be adopted in Ireland, the report found, with collaboration likely to be more conducive to solving funding problems. A strategic investment model for Irish projects could identify “strategic projects” through a robust framework and would be the first step in providing Government support for development of offshore renewable energy ports.

Debize backs the case for a network with other ports across Europe. “Co-operation is key, especially for floating wind in the Mediterranean. This is where Port-La Nouvelle wants to be – with Italian ports, with Spanish ports.”

That mindset needs to be adopted in Ireland, says Barry O’Sullivan, chairman of the Shannon Estuary Economic Taskforce. He believes the Shannon estuary should be seen “as the green front door for Europe”, such is the depth, shelter, wet storage capacity and offshore wind speeds nearby.

With world-leading international and indigenous companies already in Ireland, he says “we have the capability” to have a facility of that scale, and that is not being naive. “We have every natural advantage they have and more, because they don’t have the wind speeds we have.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times