The awarding of Green Freeport status to Cromarty Firth and the Firth of Forth has been hailed as a timely accelerator for the transition of Scotland’s ports to clean energy. Cromarty Firth, focusing on industries involved in hydrogen and offshore wind, is looking to create 25,000 jobs and generate £4.8 billion in local investment.

The Forth Freeport, meanwhile, will be a hub for alternative fuels, renewables manufacturing, carbon capture and shipbuilding. It is envisaged this will create 50,000 jobs and attract £6 billion of investment.

With both freeports looking to rapidly capitalise on their newfound status, Neil Girvan believes Scotland’s ports represent a long-term infrastructure investment, where the pay-off to local communities and the wider Scottish economy continues year after year. 

Almost wherever you look, there is ongoing work to replace some of the older structures

Neil Girvan

The publisher of The Ports of Scotland Yearbook, which in its 43rd year provides the industry with a unique and authoritative resource, Girvan says: “Investment remains a key driver of growth in our business. Forth Ports and Cromarty Firth Port Authority have poured large amounts of money into improvements and port expansion plans, creating engineering opportunities to dismantle the past and build the future.

“Almost wherever you look, there is ongoing work to replace some of the older structures with modern new buildings while upgrading facilities – including deepening harbours, strengthening quaysides, building heavy lift pads and developing laydown areas for the offshore wind industry.”

However, Girvan points out that governments are also keen to achieve higher environmental standards and the ports sector must respond. 

“Scottish ports have long been looking at ways to be environmentally sustainable. Looking forward, the implementation of the green agenda and how this energy transition plays out, is an interesting side on how North Sea ports will facilitate and service a still vitally important oil and gas and subsea sector.” 

As Scottish ports continue to find new ways to accommodate the renewables and marine energy generation sectors, including wave and tidal, Girvan caveats: “The most immediate renewable opportunities lie within offshore wind. This will require a huge amount of development and much will be facilitated in the Scottish port sector and Scottish waters.”

In Girvan’s view Scotland’s ports are in good shape to take advantage of traditional opportunities in agriculture, forestry, container business, fishing and leisure industries, but he adds: “The role of the ports is constantly evolving, as they look to find new ways to accommodate the fledging industry sectors, such as decommissioning and renewables, and continue to capitalise on the flourishing cruise ship market”.

He concludes: “The industry is full of opportunities and Scottish ports will continue to provide sustainable employment along with technical ability, knowledge and investment to ensure they play a crucial role as a sector driver in the national and local economies.”

While much of the heavy lifting is already under way to facilitate the ports’ transition, a major factor in this evolution will be the digitalisation of operations, a driver of growth very much intrinsic to Kevin Martin’s mission.

The port industry will be forced to change to meet new market expectations

Kevin Martin

Having worked in the ports sector for 30 years, both in operations and technology, Martin created Smart Ports Alliance in 2020. Its foundation is the Smart Ports Manifesto, a set of values and principles designed so any port can adapt to become a Smart Port. 

“We promote a mindset where ports and terminals consider their unique requirements and build effective technology stacks using the most appropriate tools – the right tools for the right job at the right time. There’s nothing smart about the bad use of good technology!

“Embedded habits and behaviours of mature, infrastructure-heavy industries that favour slow movement and long investment cycles are not compatible with the fast moving, continuously evolving world of digital technologies.”

Martin argues new behaviours and attitudes to change are required for industry to capitalise fully on digital assets.

“It’s no longer enough to buy individual siloed solutions that keep data in one single area of the business – data that potentially has value in many other areas, if only those areas knew it existed.

“If ports have already invested in the physical IT infrastructure – networks of servers, routers and switches and devices connected by physical or wireless transmission medium – they now need to invest in the hard and soft skills required to create an additional virtual layer of interconnected digital assets, greater than the sum of its parts, that optimises the movement and availability of information.”

Martin’s aim is to encourage a different way of thinking about technology and the skills required to maximise its value.

“I’m also hopeful The Smart Ports Alliance can bring smaller ports together to realise they do all have similar challenges, and they can work collaboratively on solutions, leveraging their collective bargaining power to make digitalisation a more affordable prospect. 

“Without this, the digital gap between the large and small players will continue to expand.”

He believes there will be huge opportunities for the small players as businesses look to reinvent supply chains and environmental action promotes a modal shift from road to rail and sea. 

“For years, shipping has become more and Emission results are plane to seessels visiting fewer and fewer ports, but these things work in cycles with technology always enabling decentralisation in the long run.

“The pandemic and the calamity caused by the container ship Ever Given grounding in the Suez Canal have shown supply chains are not resilient to shocks. 

“The likes of John Lewis, Walmart and others started chartering their own vessels to avoid the congestion that arose from those two scenarios, and smaller ports that are digitally enabled and ready to meet the new market expectations could have a significant competitive advantage in the future.

“As consumer and business technology evolves, it is inevitable the port industry will also be forced to change to meet new market expectations … but a mindset shift will be required.”

Hunterston set for key development role

Hunterston Port and Resource Campus has announced it is ready to welcome renewable energy developers to join its growing community after being granted national development status. The designation, under the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 4, recognises Hunterston as a strategically important site with a key role to play in supporting the delivery of Scotland’s national development strategy and the transition to net zero by 2045.

The government’s consultation paper on the strategy stresses the status will leverage Hunterston PARC’s “potential for electricity generation from renewables”, as well as research and development, aquaculture and the circular economy.

Part of Clydeport, Hunterston PARC is one of 18 developments to have received special status as part of the Clyde Mission. This is focused on the river and riverside from South Lanarkshire to Inverclyde and Argyll and Bute. Ultimately, this will see King George V Docks, Rothesay Dock, Inchgreen and Greenock Ocean Terminal form part of the new planning designation.

It’s the latest phase in Hunterston PARC’s mission to create a facility to service and grow the blue, green and circular economies.

James McSporran, Director of Clydeport at Peel Ports Group, commented: “Clydeport’s assets are uniquely placed to also attract further investment and business opportunities that will be a vital boost to the West of Scotland after Glasgow City Region lost out on its bid for Green Freeport status.”