Port Talbot can be re-energized by floating offshore wind farms

A 40mph wind blows in Port Talbot on a sunny day, causing white horses to froth in the bay. Offshore wind turbines in the North Sea would be spinning furiously. The Celtic Sea is too deep for turbines to be attached to the seabed. This energy is wasted.

There are plans to capture wind power in Port Talbot a new way. Wind farm developers plan to install hundreds on platforms floating in the water, and attach them only with anchors.

The concept is not new. It may conjure up images of huge, spindly wind turbines falling into the sea but it has been proven. Six floating turbines off Peterhead, Scotland have been in operation since 2017. The first wind farm, Hywind Scotland, is expected to be the first of many as developers look to take advantage of the 80 percent of the world’s wind resources that are located outside shallow water.

The Hywind Scotland project was a first in the world for Britain. However, the turbines had been assembled in Norway and then towed over the North Sea. This is a common approach to offshore wind implementation.

The UK is now a leader in offshore wind. It has attracted foreign companies to install turbines along its coasts.

The nation has not had as much success in developing a domestic industry for wind. About half of the money spent by energy companies on the construction of wind farms in British water has been paid to UK-based companies. The majority of components and installation vessels have been imported from Denmark, Germany, and Spain.

ABP, which operates 21 ports across the UK, is looking to change this at Port Talbot. The company will invest £500 million in this port to make it a “manufacturing center” for offshore wind on the Celtic Sea. It hopes to do this by bringing a green industry to an area that has been hit hard by the decline of a polluting old one.

Port Talbot is the name of the community that was established in 1837 by local landowner Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot and his MP.

Tata’s Steelworks is located next to the harbour. It’s the UK’s biggest producer of not only steel, but also carbon emissions. Since the 1980s, the steelworks, which is one of the largest in the world has been threatened with closure.

Massive piles of coking are piled around the site. They will be shoveled into ‘s last two blast furnaces, which is soon to close . This could result in up to 2,800 job losses. The plant’s workers, who number about 4,000, have recently supported strike action in protest of the closures.

Lumen Energy & Environment is a consultancy that has estimated the launch of offshore floating wind in the Celtic Sea will create 5,300 new jobs. Crown Estate has invited bids to develop 4.5 gigawatts of floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea. The government also plans to develop 12GW.

Together, this is more offshore wind power than has been installed in the UK waters to date. Port Talbot’s deep harbour could make it possible to install three turbines a week by the early 2030s.

Andy Reay is the head of ABP’s offshore wind. He says: “As the offshore wind transitions from fixed to floating, the UK has the opportunity to capture more economic activity than we did previously.” Fixed-bottom offshore winds have traditionally been delivered with modest port investments. But floating offshore wind requires a very different type of infrastructure.

ABP envisions floating turbines being assembled in ports and then towed out to sea. This will give manufacturers a reason to be based nearby.

This assembly process will take up a lot space. The quays must be widened in order to accommodate cranes which will build football-sized platforms for the turbines. The fibreglass blades of the turbines are taller than the Elizabeth Tower and will require space to be laid down. ABP plans to submit a planning application for this project by June of next year, and complete the upgrade to the port before the end decade.

BW Ideol (a French company which produces concrete platforms for windmills) and Swansea’s Marine Power Systems, who make platforms from steel, compete to supply this project.

Paul de la Gueriviere is the chief executive officer of BW Ideol. He believes that his company has an advantage, because “there’s no way you can be cost competitive manufacturing steel foundations” in Europe. You would need to manufacture the steel foundations in Asia and then tow them to Europe.

Anthony Glick, MPS Business Development Manager, concurs that “there is a problem with steel plates, we don’t make enough steel in the UK, so we may need to buy it from somewhere else.” The UK is well-positioned to do the welding and fabrication of steel foundations.

He said that MPS and Tata Steel are working together to develop a platform made of strip steel. This can be produced by the new electric arc kilns at the steelworks, instead of the plate steel used in the blast furnaces which will soon close. “So, hopefully, our platforms will be made of local steel.”

He continues: “It is disappointing that thousands of jobs will be lost in the Port Talbot steel deal, but that there will still be steel produced here, which is a positive.” Tata aims to produce plate steel with hydrogen in the future instead of coal. It would be great if we could make our foundations out of that plate steel instead of having to import it from all over the world, as we might have to do in some cases.

Glick claims that ports in Europe compete to attract wind-turbine manufacturers to their premises. There are many ports in Europe where huge sums of money are being spent to achieve what Port Talbot is trying to do. Many manufacturers already have a base in Bilbao. It’s possible that components or even entire wind turbines can be manufactured there, then towed over to the waters around Wales. We don’t like that. “We want to produce everything here”

Sir Keir starmer announced last month that Labour would make “the largest investment in our port in a generation” by spending £1.8 billion on preparing them for floating offshore winds. Glick believes that this money is best spent on “encouraging foreign businesses to relocate in Port Talbot so as to build up a supply-chain here”. If this money was used to build a supply chain, it would be a big step forward.

He said: “There’s no reason this couldn’t be a major manufacturing hub.” Currently, many Swansea engineering graduates are leaving the area due to a lack of jobs. This will allow us to keep those people in Swansea, Port Talbot and the surrounding area. It is also a lucrative industry.