Wind turbines are hulking steel beasts that weigh hundreds of tonnes. On land, they tower over landscapes. But imagine trying to assemble one in a traditional sea port, hauling the 100-metre-long turbine and 90-metre blades onto a floating platform – and then gently tugging the whole thing out to a wind farm in the middle of the sea.
Maneuvering wind turbines requires a major revamp of port infrastructure. The docks need to be strong enough to hold huge cranes capable of lifting the turbines; the loading areas need to be big enough to stock the disassembled wind turbine parts; and the main basin needs to be deep and wide enough to mount everything on a floater and then store it.
Port-la-Nouvelle thinks it’s up to the challenge. The port near Montpellier, southern France, traditionally handled cereal and other agricultural exports destined for North Africa. Now, the region is investing €340 million, €150 million of which is being provided by the European Investment Bank, to refurbish ports in Sète and Port-la-Nouvelle. The plans call for Port-la-Nouvelle to be transformed into a Mediterranean hub for the construction, logistics and support of offshore floating wind farms. The hub will also eventually produce green hydrogen from the clean energy generated by the wind farms.
“It requires an industrial process and infrastructure that are very different from what we usually do,” says Didier Cordorniou, director of maritime affairs for the French Occitania region.
Making room for giants
Port la Nouvelle’s transition is part of an ambitious renewable energy strategy laid out by the Occitania region. The region is hoping to benefit from the development of two floating offshore wind farms planned in the Mediterranean, whose production is expected to cover the energy needs of 400 000 people. Occitania, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in France, sees renewable energy as an opportunity to re-energise its traditional economy of agriculture, tourism and, further inland, aerospace.
“The new infrastructure supports the efforts to develop greener port activities and to decarbonise energy production and, as such, is an additional step towards reaching our goal for carbon neutrality at the European level,” says Shirley Moussavou, the EIB loan officer for the Port-la-Nouvelle project. “Floating offshore windfarms are also at the forefront of the energy transition agenda in France.”
In addition to financing Port la Nouvelle, the EIB is also supporting the pilot wind farms – one offshore from Leucate-Le Barcarès, run by Les Éoliennes Flottantes du Golfe du Lion, and another close to Gruissan, which will be operated by EolMed. The Bank signed an €85 million loan with Eolmed in April and a €75 million loan with Les Éoliennes Flottantes in May. Both loans are backed by a guarantee from the European Fund for Strategic Investments. The Bank is also providing €50 million to a third offshore park, planned 40 kilometres west of Marseille.
Port-la-Nouvelle is situated just less than 20 kilometres from the parks run by Les Éoliennes Flottantes and EolMed. Location matters when it comes to infrastructure for offshore wind farms – particularly the floating kind. The relatively short distance between the port and the wind farms reduces the risks involved in transporting the huge structures at sea.
Once a wind turbine is settled on a floater, its centre of gravity is exceptionally high. About 600 tonnes of steel teeters 100 metres over the ocean. It’s like taking a fully loaded 747 airliner and standing it on its nose. Keeping the structure stable during transportation is a delicate, slow operation, explains Julien Ciglar, project manager for marine renewable energies at Occitania’s Regional Agency for Economic Development. During the installation, the weather has to be good, and the waves calm.