IN DEPTH: Belfast’s ship comes in

It was once a centre of the global shipbuilding industry, the place where famous vessels such as the Titanic and HMS Belfast took shape.

Now, after the biggest single investment in its 400-year history, Belfast Harbour in Northern Ireland is creating a new future for itself — as a centre for offshore wind.

Its recently opened £53m ($80m), 20-hectare assembly and logistics terminal has been leased to Denmark’s Dong Energy, which — together with partner Iberdrola-owned ScottishPower Renewables — will use the site as the base for their £1.6bn West of Duddon Sands (WoDS) project in the Irish Sea, 15km off northwest England.

In mid-May, the world’s joint-largest wind installation vessel, Pacific Orca, arrived at the new 480-metre deep-water quay where up to three vessels can berth simultaneously with access available around the clock. On the quayside, rows of giant yellow transition pieces and rust-coloured monopiles were already waiting for the start of project construction. Some 108 Siemens 3.6MW turbines, each with a 120-metre-diameter rotor, will later arrive for installation at WoDS.

Stretching out over 800 hectares, the harbour comprises at least a quarter of the landmass of Belfast. At its heart lies Harland and Wolff (H&W), the former shipbuilder responsible for the aforementioned historic vessels, whose mighty twin gantry cranes, affectionately named Samson and Goliath by locals, are city landmarks.

“A big driver for us has been using Belfast, which is a fantastic facility, being a good deep-water harbour with plenty of land available,” Dong’s UK country manager, Benj Sykes, tells Recharge. “Using Belfast as a staging post is extremely important for us in completing a number of our Irish Sea projects.”

Industry estimates suggest that over £100bn of investments in offshore renewables will be needed for the UK to hit its target of sourcing 20% of its electricity from green energy by 2020 (and for Northern Ireland to meet its target of 40%).

Such projections would equate to the construction of up to 11,000 offshore turbines, many sited off the UK western coast.

Even if such bullish projections turn out to be overly optimistic, Belfast Harbour does not see any other industry offering as much growth potential as offshore wind.

“Belfast has been linked with such significant industries as shipbuilding and aerospace for a long time,” says Michael Robinson, commercial manager at Belfast Harbour Commissioners. “We see the renewables sector as a 21st-century version of those two industries.”

Robinson reveals that the commissioners have also held “extensive discussions” with wind foundation and cable manufacturers over setting up a manufacturing base on a site near the Dong terminal.

“We have this further site we call D3 on the other side of the [adjacent] nature reserve. This slightly smaller 46-acre site has about a 400-metre-long quay, which also fronts onto the ports’ main deep-water shipping channel.”

However, discussions between the commissioners and prospective tenants for the D3 site are stalled due to continuing uncertainty over the UK’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR). “We are certainly hopeful that if the government gives the right signals on EMR, allowing the industry to develop, that it could result in a major wind manufacturing player coming to Belfast,” says Robinson.

Although the commissioners haven’t yet been branding Belfast as an Irish Sea “wind hub”, it does have the constituent parts. H&W recently built two offshore substations for RWE Innogy’s 576MW Gwynt y Môr wind farm in Liverpool Bay, and has just finished building its first two suction-bucket foundations.

A number of renewables companies, particularly in the wave and tidal sector, are also established within the harbour estate, at the Northern Ireland Science Park.

“We also have another 70 acres of land, within half of mile of the Dong site, which isn’t waterfronting, which could be used for suppliers and sub-suppliers to the sector,” says Robinson.

One problem faced by the commissioners is that some wind developers with a single project have been asking for a lot of money to be spent on building or improving facilities — despite having a construction phase of only two years.

“The beauty of the agreement we have with Dong is that it has a broad portfolio of future projects that allows the two parties to give meaningful commitments to each other over the long term,” he says.

For a harbour and a nation that have seen so many hard times in recent decades, offshore wind is a breath of fresh air for Belfast.