Why marine energy in Pembrokeshire could be a UK game changer

The transformation of the Milford Haven Waterway is set to position Wales as a global model of energy innovation, delivering huge benefits to Wales’ and the UK’s carbon reduction plans. Michael Sweet investigates the developments underway at Wales’ largest deepwater port

The view from the office of Steve Edwards, commercial director of the Port of Milford Haven, is breathtaking. In the distance, a vast LNG tanker, longer than three football pitches and capable of carrying enough gas to power a car for 112 million miles is injecting its load into the UK’s national gas grid. It’s one of more than a hundred such vessels a year that use the Milford Haven Waterway, and which make the Port of Milford Haven the third largest energy port in Britain, supplying a fifth of the UK’s energy needs.

In the first 60 years of its existence the Port has managed the emergence of two energy revolutions – oil in the 1960s and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from 2009. Today the Port is core to the UK’s energy network, supporting around thousands of jobs in the maritime, renewables and engineering sectors, and more in the supply chain.

Now it’s planning for a third, and most far-reaching revolution – low carbon energy – through the creation of a clean energy cluster and the future development of hydrogen which is likely to be a key energy source to deliver net zero.

At the helm of arguably Wales’ most ambitious renewable energy project, Steve Edwards, explains how the port plays a critical role in the UK’s energy infrastructure.

Steve Edwards, Commercial Director, POrt of Milford Haven

“Around 25 per cent of the UK’s gas needs come through the Port of Milford Haven, and during the pandemic the port has played an even more important role, providing 85 per cent of the UK’s LNG gas needs on one day during 2020,” says Edwards.

At the heart of the Port’s vision is the £60 million Pembroke Dock Marine (PDM) project – an integral part of the £1.3 billion Swansea City Bay Deal programme, signed off by the UK and Welsh Governments in 2017.

PDM comprises four separate but interrelated elements that together will build on an existing energy cluster that has grown around Pembroke Dock. PDM is about developing a world-class centre for growing Wales’ ‘blue economy’ – an emerging concept which encourages better stewardship of the oceans.

“It’s a £60 million investment into the Pembrokeshire economy,” says Edwards. “There are more than 5,000 jobs supported around the Haven and we have to ensure we invest in port facilities that are ready for the needs of the 21st century.

“PDM is expected to create in excess of 1,800 jobs and have positive impact on creating supply-chain resilience, protecting more jobs.”

Despite the project’s well-defined benefits in terms of regional economic development and hard to argue sustainable energy credentials, it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Edwards and his team. Some critics of the PDM program, which involves transforming historically important built infrastructure of what was the Royal Dockyard, campaigned against elements of the project up until final Welsh Government approval earlier this year.

Updated port infrastructure was critical for PDM. For marine-based energy generation sources, ports need flat, lay-down spaces next to deep water, but also 21st century buildings and facilities. Edwards says concerns over heritage protection were heard, and where possible, incorporated into the Port’s plans.

“Our aim is to grow the Haven’s prosperity, and one of our core values is sustainability. As we’ve developed PDM and the infrastructure that needs to be built we’ve held numerous stakeholder consultations.

“We understand that everyone has their own particular asks. What we’ve  done as part of the project, is ensured that the concerns we heard were as practically possible incorporated into the project.

“We’re revitalising parts of the Port infrastructure such as Carriage Drive and the Hanger Annexes as well as certain walls and areas, and we’ve worked with the likes of CADW, Natural Resources Wales and local stakeholders, and kept both town councils and local communities engaged in those developments.”

Central to PDM is the cluster of companies that are driving it with Port of Milford Haven, those being ORE Catapult, Marine Energy Wales and Wave Hub. The project is bolstered also by working with businesses like the Australian wave-power company Bombora, and big-hitter energy companies like Valero, Dragon, RWE Renewables and Blue Gem Wind.

“The opportunity we have with PDM covers many energy vectors,” says Edwards, “from hydrogen to floating offshore wind, whilst recognising the ongoing role and importance of LNG and hydrocarbons.”

Blue Gem Wind floating offshore wind turbine

One key message Edwards is keen to share, is that PDM as it stands now, is just the start.

“The infrastructure we’re creating through PDM, is insufficient by itself to take advantage of future opportunities. We’re going to need more lay-down space and a larger quayside near deep water, and storage to be able to unlock things like the £682 million pound opportunity attached to the Celtic Sea Floating Wind opportunity.

“PDM is very much the first stage, an enabler, that can help unlock future investment, to allow more organisations to come in.

“If the UK Government and the Welsh Government really want Welsh and UK content in our energy going forward, like the Celtic Sea, we have to invest in our port infrastructure and local supply chain to match that ambition.”

It’s been a tough 18 months for the Port and the Waterway. The pandemic hit hard, battering passenger numbers on the Irish Ferries service between the port and Rosslare. 2021 numbers are around 20 per cent of what they were in 2019. Freight tonnage is down too with a 30 per cent drop in freight volumes, and largely a direct result of Brexit. Hauliers are steering clear of the complexities of new trade rules with the EU and taking the path of least resistance, using direct services to mainland Europe from Ireland.

Blue Gem Wind floating offshore turbine

Another devastating Brexit impact has been on the fishing industry. The Port of Milford Haven is Wales’ largest fishing port and in 2019 and 2020 more than 3,300 tonnes of fish stocks were landed annually at Milford Haven. In 2021, up to the end of July, just 153 tonnes came ashore.

Meanwhile, the Port of Milford Haven is working with government and other port stakeholders to mitigate the problems brought by the pandemic and Brexit.

Despite the challenges there is much to be optimistic about. As part of the Port’s plans, In April 2022, it will launch Tŷ Hotel, a new 100-bedroom hotel at the entrance to the Milford Waterfront. Managed and operated by the team responsible for the iconic Celtic Manor Resort as part of its expanding Celtic Collection of properties, the 46,000 square feet property will provide a significant draw for tourists. More than 50 jobs are promised, and more employment through the hotel’s supply chains

For Pembrokeshire, an area with its ageing population, an over reliance on a limited number of sectors to generate jobs, and the highest levels of child poverty in Wales, the net zero journey and the ambitious growth taking place in the Waterway has far-reaching implications.

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