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    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.

    The Occitania region, which includes the area from around Toulouse, down to Spain and over to Montpellier, is known for its good weather. But it’s also known for its wind, the famous mistral, a strong northwesterly gale that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion, where the windfarms will be located. In fact, wind speeds in Occitania can reach those of the North Sea, Ciglar says.

    While those winds are good for generating power, they are terrible for keeping a 600-tonne turbine stable on a 90x90-metre floater. To be able to assemble the turbines on the floaters, the port’s main basin must be protected from high waves and provide enough space to manipulate the turbines. Stocking the parts for wind turbines, blades and the floaters also requires large loading docks. “Storage is really the name of the game,” Ciglar says.

    Renewable ambitions

    Before the pilot wind farms were announced, Port-la-Nouvelle was struggling to define itself. Business was waning. The port’s main business of cereal exports was in decline, and the port lacked the infrastructure to accommodate larger ships transporting hydrocarbons like fossil fuels and chemicals.

    The surrounding region of the eastern Pyrenees has limited industry and unemployment at close to 10%. Turning the port’s business toward renewable energy offered an opportunity to “revitalise the area’s economy,” Cordorniou says. “It offered a chance to transform our model and a means to decarbonise,” he says, “while also allowing the creation of jobs in the region.”

    The immediate pilot projects are expected to create about 300 full time jobs. The French government, however, has big plans for offshore wind. Initial plans call for two pilot farms with three wind turbines each. But by 2030 the French government plans to expand the farms, creating a 250 MW floating wind park in the middle of the Golf of Lion, which will eventually provide energy for more than 400 000 people. Another, similar-sized floating wind park is planned off the coast of Marseille.

    “The region has a strong ambition to make Port-la-Nouvelle the port of energy transition, not just for France, but for the Mediterranean in general,” Ciglar says.

    Pivoting to green hydrogen

    The infrastructure and support Port la Nouvelle will provide to the wind farms is part of a bigger regional strategy to create a hub of renewable energy. A consortium called Wind’Occ has brought together 170 firms and 25 academic institutions and laboratories from the region to support the emerging wind power industry. 

    The region is also focusing on green hydrogen. In 2019, it adopted a €150 million Green Hydrogen Plan, which envisages creating the infrastructure to produce, store and distribute hydrogen, and to use the energy to power local transport, like buses and trains. A related project, Corridor H2, will develop a network of hydrogen distribution stations in Occitania along the road that runs from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. The EIB is loaning €40 million to the Corridor H2 project.

    “The region could show other areas of France how to develop these kinds of activities,” said José Rino, an expert in the Air, Maritime and Innovative Transport division at the EIB.

    The EIB is a major financier of offshore wind power, providing €10 billion for 33 projects in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. The Bank is also financing innovative floating wind power, which allows for farms in deeper waters, with stronger, more reliable winds. The EIB helped fund a new floating wind farm off the coast of Portugal.

     Port-la-Nouvelle’s investment is a serious bet on these floating farms. Cordorniou says floating farms “represent the future of wind power,” but these farms require significant support. “Today, we are pretty happy to have made the choices we did,” he says, “because everybody, including the French state, is looking for port infrastructure that can serve these farms.”