Port of Blyth & the Renewable Energy Sector

Port of Blyth & the Renewable Energy Sector

When Martin Lawlor, the CEO, first joined the Port of Blyth in the late 1990s the renewable energy sector was only just beginning to take shape in the UK and the port’s prime source of income was the paper trade.

Business Live is reporting that there are now no less than 52 companies based around the estuary linked to the clean energy sector, with the cluster helping Northumberland to punch well above its weight in the growing sector. The port recently unveiled record results for a third consecutive year, boosting turnover to £31.5m and operating profit to £3.9m thanks to its work as one the UK’s biggest offshore energy support bases.

The last 12 months have seen it mobilise two of the world’s largest offshore wind farms, providing significant vessel and onshore handling activity, while also being involved in specialist sub-sea equipment, heavy project lifts and support for the decommissioning sector. The level of activity is a far cry from the port’s revenue earners when Mr Lawlor, who was appointed CEO in 2006, first arrived at the port as commercial director.

He said: “When I first came here we were a paper port – almost everything we did was paper coming in from Scandinavia, and I was brought in to generate some new trade because we were coming close to when we knew we were going to lose that trade. The paper firm wanted to go through a single port, and with the best will in the world they were never going to use Blyth for the whole of the UK.”

Mr Lawlor had been looking at emerging trends and sectors that the port could tap into, and – alongside creating the container service and some work in scrap metal – he could see that wind turbines could become a strong opportunity. Onshore wind turbines were, at the time, being developed for the Scottish Borders and the North of England.

He said: “I had seen things in the trade press and thought clearly there’s something here. The board said I needed to generate new trade that didn’t require warehousing – that warehousing was soon to become empty when the paper trade went – so they said ‘help us to get into wind turbines’. It was almost the origins of what we do today.”

Since then, the port’s work within the renewables sector has flourished, with it seeing the most growth over the last 10 years, as more businesses seek to join the cluster.

Mr Lawlor said: “The story behind it is really interesting. We were very much a first mover in the area of offshore renewables – the very first two offshore wind turbines in the UK were off Blyth. We’d already cut our teeth in wind turbines, bringing in onshore ones from the continent, so even in the late ’90s we were doing wind turbine components in the days when they were not yet widely acknowledged. It was a niche area then – oil and gas was still everything.

“We used that experience of handling onshore turbines and grew from there really. We started to attract one or two big companies who saw what we were doing, and I guess each company we attracted around the estuary made it easier to attract the next one, so this cluster has grown rapidly and we now have 52 companies who are involved to some degree in the sector, so it’s a huge cluster.

“That attracts the ships and the developers – they know that if a vessel comes here it is a one-stop shop. We have all these facilities and services at their disposal. Not just handling, but everything from specialist hydraulics, to electrical et cetera. so we’re able to pull in things very quickly.

“Some of the larger vessels which enter the port can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to hire so if we can turn a ship around a day or two quicker than someone else it’s a fortune. So our challenges are almost irrelevant – it’s our service level that makes the difference.

“And that’s what differentiates us from the rest of the UK at the moment. We’ve gained a reputation for expertise. The cluster itself as a partnership has grown to be internationally significant now.”

At the moment there are around 1,000 people employed at port-based businesses, and Mr Lawlor says the challenge will be to make sure job numbers are maximised going forward. By 2030, some 72,000 extra UK jobs will be available purely in the wind sector, and there are hopes that as many of those jobs as possible will be North East-based.

He said: “We’re well-placed, so we want to make sure that we gain more than our fair share of those jobs around the estuary, and to continue to grow the port.”

Mr Lawlor said the port is also looking at other opportunities for expansion – specifically near-port sites, which could involve its logistics business Transped or could see it rent space.

He said: “There’s a couple of large inland sites where we might get involved, where we could move some of the things that don’t need to be alongside deep water, like containers and anything road-borne. We could have a logistics base inland, which is 5-10 minutes away, which frees up space for the big stuff which can’t come down the public highway.

“We could take some space ourselves for our container operation, or get involved with inward investors – we can say ‘do you need assistance with warehousing?’ We can load what they make onto vessels, bring their raw materials into port – we’re a very much integrated supplier for them.”

Meanwhile it is also expecting to see a lift in its decommissioning work at Battleship Wharf. As well as its work on oil and gas projects, wind turbines will also come through Battleship Wharf as they come to the end of their lifespans.

Mr Lawlor said: “Not only did we have the very first two offshore wind turbines in the UK, we also decommissioned the very first two. We use some of those components for our wind turbine training facility. It’s good to have that to train the next generation. In due course the turbines will come through for decommissioning so we see that as another opportunity further down the line.”

Ensuring the next generation of port workers are brought through in the area is a high priority, one which will soon be even more possible through the Energy Central Campus. The campus is made up of two education, training and skills facilities focusing on STEM education, sector-led training, higher level skills, and phase one will welcome its first intake of students in September. From 2026, the centre of Blyth will have Phase 2, teaching degree and PhD level skills, collaborating with local universities and the ORE Catapult.

Mr Lawlor is the first chair of the new education facility’s board, and he says much work has gone into creating an education ecosystem where everyone can become enthused by careers within clean energy, from primary school level to PhD – a “learning factory” which is hoped will provide a blueprint for future facilities across the UK. He said businesses based in Blyth have offered to exhibit in the visitor centre, while also offering to take placements.

“The idea is that it will be business-led – it’s at the heart of this cluster which inspires people to enter the sector,” said Mr Lawlor. “Often these things are on a college campus, or on an industrial estate, so if we can’t inspire people by what they see out of this window we never will.

“We’re a Trust Port and it’s good that we do this for the region and create jobs for the future, but also whenever I speak to any of those 52 companies in the estuary, they’re not so worried about winning the next contract, they’re more worried about where on earth they’re going to get the skills and the people to fulfil the contracts and order book. If we can help them get their workforce of the future, it’s going to help the estuary and wider North East.”

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