The sun is not going to make the difference, offshore wind is

To bring the energy transition to a success, Europe will have to invest in wind energy. A significant part of that wind energy will have to come from offshore wind turbines. Numerous countries in Europe are currently working on the installation of ever larger offshore wind farms. But to be able to build those wind farms and to maintain them, properly equipped seaports are essential. Groningen Seaports’ Eemshaven is such a port.

Not only does its location make it an attractive port for Dutch offshore wind companies, but for German ones as well. “The sun isn’t going to make the difference,” says Cas König, CEO of Groningen Seaports. Under his supervision and that of his predecessor Harm Post, Groningen Seaports has transformed into a company which specialises in offshore wind energy. An impressive achievement, given the fact that originally Eemshaven was constructed to service companies dealing with fossil fuels. But the oil crisis of 1973 threw a spanner in the works and eventually led to the bankruptcy of the municipal company behind the port authority. Only after the national government stepped out of the municipal company in 1997, changes were made within. And with Germany announcing that it was going to build an offshore wind farm 45 kilometres (28 miles) north of the isle of Borkum in 1999, a huge opportunity presented itself to the up until then not very important Eemshaven.

“The hardest part is to get someone to build the first wind farm from your port,” says Erik Bertholet, business manager Logistics & Offshore Wind. Luckily that first time did come for Groningen Seaports, with the construction of Borkum West Offshore Wind Farm, which is these days known as alpha ventus. The wind farm became operational in 2009 and has an installed capacity of 60 megawatts. The involvement of Groningen Seaports in the construction of alpha ventus has certainly paid off: there are numerous offshore wind farms in the North Sea area between the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark which are either currently being built or have already been completed in which Groningen Seaports is involved. One of those is the Dutch offshore wind farm Gemini, comprising 150 turbines with an installed capacity of no less than 600 megawatts.

But these turbines are not being built at the port of Eemshaven itself. König: “We offer the facilities and infrastructure to install offshore wind farms from Groningen Seaports. We are not a seaport for production.” The turbine components arrive at Eemshaven and are sometimes assembled there, but then leave to those wind farms under construction. “You need the right weather conditions for that work,” says König. “You cannot afford to be too far away from your working area; you want to be able to sail out quickly when the weather conditions are right. Eemshaven happens to be a suitable location for that.”

However, being a suitable location isn’t enough. König: “We have extended our harbour basin, we have deepened our fairways and have installed heavy loading docks, including one that can carry up to 30 metric tons per square meter. By comparison: most loading docks can carry about 4 to 6 tons per square meter.”

That heaviest loading dock is an investment in the future of the port. Bertholet: “Right now we only need loading docks which can carry up to 10 tons per square meter.” There are a few other ports in Europe which also have a loading dock of 30 tons per square meter, but Bertholet doesn’t see those as competition. Nor does he see nearby located German seaports as such: “They are more like colleagues. And you can actually work together: one port cannot handle a lot more than three companies which are working on an offshore wind farm simultaneously. So, then you’ll find yourself working together with surrounding ports.” A big advantage when looking for a job at Groningen Seaports is mastering the German language: the port does a lot of business with its eastern neighbours.

O&M base
Especially foundations for offshore wind farms come and go at Eemshaven. No less than 16 offshore wind farms are being built or have been constructed in which Eemshaven is or has been involved. Among those are alpha ventus, Gode Wind, Borkum Riffgat (Germany), Gemini (Netherlands) and Race Bank (UK). Still, it is not so much the installation of new wind farms which offer the most work for Eemshaven but the maintenance of those wind farms. Bertholet: “The installation of a wind farm typically takes about a year and a half. But maintenance contracts often go up to a period of fifteen years.”

Being a base of operations for the installation and maintenance of offshore wind farms also means that numerous ships involved in building and maintaining those wind farms lay anchor at Eemshaven. Constructing a new wind farm goes a lot further than simply installing the turbines. Those turbines need to be connected to the power grid and for that, many a mile of subsea power cable is needed. Bertholet: “To install those cables you need several ships. A cable layer of course, but also an inspection ship, a ship which secures the cable and a ship which covers up the cable, like a fall pipe vessel.” Apart from those ships there are also a lot of tugboats and research vessels which lay anchor at Eemshaven.

And don’t forget about the massive yellow boxes from Dutch high voltage network operator TenneT. These transformers are needed to connect offshore wind farms to the onshore power grid. These also arrive at and leave from Eemshaven, as was the case with the transformers for BorWin 1, 2 and 3. In these three stations, TenneT converts the direct current from the accumulated wind power into three-phase current and subsequently feeds it into the power grid.

Onshore turbines feed large industries
Eemshaven is not only a port which sees lots of components for offshore wind farms enter and leave; it also houses numerous onshore wind turbines. Right now, these number around one hundred, enough for a total installed capacity of over 280 megawatts. This generated power is largely consumed by facilities at Eemshaven itself, for example by QTS’ and Google’s datacentres. König: “Google, for example, has announced that it wants to generate 100 percent of renewable energy here for its own datacentre. And a datacentre can hardly use less power, so the installation of more wind energy remains the only solution.”

Eemshaven is also the site where a lot of cables from offshore wind farms land, as well as intercontinental cables: both the COBRAcable and NorNed links come ashore here. In addition, Eemshaven and Delfzijl are home to several power plants, like Eneco’s biomass plant, Engie’s Eemscentrale and Vattenfall’s Magnum. So, it seems only logical that Groningen Seaports is stepping forward as a forerunner in the energy transition, given the important role it can take up in this transition. “For the Northern Netherlands region only to comply with the promises it made in our climate agreement,” König says, “we need 7 gigawatts of renewable energy originating from offshore wind farms. That is a factor 10 more than Gemini wind farm can produce. To get to this amount, we need to generate more offshore wind power above our West Frisian Islands. This is a matter of national importance.”

Turning the tide
Ironically, Groningen Seaports, which has some formidable growth plans for the near future, finds itself situated in a region of the country which for the last years has shown a decline in inhabitants and with that, labour force. König however is determined that this will not cause any problems. On the contrary: he considers Groningen Seaports as the party to turn the tide: “Already we see that more and more people from the city of Groningen come to our port for work. Companies like Google are a big help in this. They already have 300 employees here and they have announced to invest another one billion euros in their datacentre.”

Bertholet agrees with König, although he also points out the importance of long-term thinking: “Not only do you need to consider how to attract talent to this region, but also how to keep it. Therefore, you already should think about the jobs that are needed here in the future.” In his opinion some students choose a study too easily, without considering what they can actually accomplish with it. “Take for example the study of leisure manager. You get educated to fulfil a job that isn’t even there. At the same time, we need welders, machine bench workers and pipe fitters. But also deck crew and R&D-personnel.” The problem according to Bertholet is that a lot of those jobs have a rather dull reputation. “But once you see how everything is assembled you realize how interesting that work actually is!”

Groningen Seaports also takes on an active role in offering internships. The company doesn’t so much offer those internships itself as it brings together educational institutions and industry. For this, Groningen Seaports collaborates with educational institutions from both secondary schools, as with colleges and universities.

Hydrogen
A lot of research is currently being done on storing wind power as hydrogen. In February, the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe presented the investment agenda Hydrogen North-Netherlands with which this region wants to assert itself as a hydrogen economy. Already there are 33 projects running; Groningen Seaports plays an important role in many of them. For example, both Eemshaven and Delfzijl will soon house electrolysers of 100 and 20 megawatts respectively (with another one of 200 megawatts planned at a later stage). Also, wind turbine manufacturer Lagerwey will place several hydrogen wind turbines at both locations.

That is another role which Eemshaven can fulfil: that of onshore testing ground for offshore wind turbines. Bertholet: “Not only is this a windy environment, but there is also the salty sea air, which can affect your wind turbines.”

The power of Groningen Seaports, according to Bertholet, lies in its networking function: “We are setting up an offshore wind energy community here called the NNOW (Northern Netherlands Offshore Wind community). The power of the NNOW is that we connect the various interested parties to one another here.”

Groningen Seaports isn’t just being considered an authority on offshore wind power by itself: the Ministry of Economic Affairs pushed Eemshaven forward as a centre of expertise for the Netherlands during an international conference on offshore wind ports in Asia. “The Netherlands are considered an international authority in this area by countries such as Taiwan, China and Japan,” says Bertholet. And Groningen Seaports is planning to become that international authority for the entire world.

This article appeared in Wind Energie Magazine No3 2019. Text: Mischa Brendel, Photos: Groningen Seaports

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