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Power to the Ports: The Future of Port Electrical Charging in the UK

Published 26 March 2024

In the race towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, the United Kingdom needs to set its sights on transforming its ports into hubs for sustainable energy solutions. One critical aspect of this transition is the availability of electrical charging infrastructure for vessels. A recent study looked at port electrical charging availability, shedding light on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Why the study?

The urgency to address port electrical charging stems from the UK’s ambitious goal to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Given the significant contribution of the maritime industry to greenhouse gas emissions, the need for electrification of vessels is vital. The study assesses the current and future capacity of ports to support charging infrastructure, exploring the potential roadblocks on the path to a greener maritime sector. 

View the report here


How the study unfolded

The project team embarked on a preliminary study, blending desk-based research with industry engagement. Stakeholders and ports were consulted to gather insights, and calculations of substation capacity and demand headroom were performed. Across the UK, distribution network operators (DNOs) shared valuable information on port electrical capacity, offering a snapshot of the current landscape and potential challenges.

Ports were selected for the study based on their current and expected activities in the offshore wind industry. Understanding the potential growth and demands of this sector is crucial when aligning with port electrical capacities; collaboration between the maritime and offshore wind industries can facilitate a synchronized approach to sustainable energy solutions.

Figure 1; Regions controlled by each DNO. Image from Ofgem. 

In addition to current capacity, the forecasted demand headroom was extracted from the DNO’s network capacity report. This is defined as:

Demand Headroom (MVA) = Substation Firm Capacity – Forecasted Maximum Demand

Splitting by DNO, it was observed that most operators have substations on the lower end of the headroom spectrum. National Grid and UK Power Networks were identified as having some of the most in-demand substations. The study highlighted that only 8 out of 32 ports are expected to still be classified as ‘good’ with respect to availability (over 2MVA demand headroom) by 2050, raising concerns about the future capacity of ports.

Figure 2; Boxplot of demand headroom by DNO, with mean (x), median (centre line), min and max.

Regional disparities and worst-case forecasts

Further analysis by DNO revealed regional features, with all ‘low demand’ substations belonging to DNOs handling the North of the country. However, substations operated by ENWL and National Grid were mostly at the lower end of availability. Worst-case forecasts illustrated potential challenges, with some locations, like Sutton Bridge and Annie Pit in Workington, facing significant shortfalls in demand headroom.

Distribution network development and proposed solutions

As a response to these forecasts, each DNO has constructed a Network Development Plan to address potential future constraints. Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) proposed three methods to tackle challenges raised in forecasts: flexible service solutions, reinforcement of assets and introducing new assets. 

Key findings: A mix of promise and concern

The study unearthed a mix of promising and concerning findings. Presently, most ports in the UK boast sufficient demand headroom to accommodate charging for the first small to medium electric vessels to hit the market. However, the long-term viability of this capacity is in doubt, with only 8 out of 35 substations predicted to have available demand headroom in 2050 without significant upgrades.

The study identified regions, such as South Wales and the East Midlands, facing significant constraints. The percentage of eligible ports with adequate capacity could decrease to 80-95% by 2030 and 50-80% by 2040. Despite planned network developments, the current pace falls short of what is necessary to support vessel charging across the UK in coming decades.

Insights and conclusions: Paving the way forward

The study concluded with several crucial insights and recommendations. The industry recognizes the cost-effective nature of electrifying Crew Transfer Vessels (CTVs), highlighting the technology’s high Technical Readiness Level (TRL). However, charging points for these vessels are still in their infancy.

While numerous ports’ substations have the headroom for significant demand, commercial and consequently financial challenges pose a barrier to short term developments, necessitating government support. Regulation to incentivize or mandate reduced carbon emissions in the offshore wind sector could expedite port demand timelines.

Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) expressed a desire to better understand port needs for upgrades. Drawing lessons from the development of car charging infrastructure, collaborative efforts involving port users, owners and DNOs were recommended. Establishing a collective understanding of future energy requirements can streamline the planning and implementation of necessary upgrades.

The importance of early trials and data sharing are seen as integral components of the transition to sustainable port electrical charging. Piloting charging infrastructure in selected ports can provide valuable insights into operational challenges and efficiency. Furthermore, sharing data and best practices among industry stakeholders can accelerate the learning curve and contribute to the successful adoption of electrification solutions.

Author and contact: Joseph Hewitt, Project Engineer