Port of call

Elaine Maslin

September 1, 2017

Once a major port for coal export, northeast England’s Port of Blyth is becoming a growing hub for offshore industries. Elaine Maslin reports.

Aerial view of the Port of Blyth. Image from Port of Blyth.

Aberdeen and Great Yarmouth have for a long time become key hubs for the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, with one predominantly supporting the oil basin and the other the southern gas basin.

But, there’s some 350mi between the two cities – or 531mi by road. Port of Blyth, which conveniently sits about half way between Aberdeen and Great Yarmouth, hopes to fill the gap, serving the offshore industry, including the ever-growing offshore wind industry, not least the Round 3 offshore wind farms (those further offshore than existing sites, such as Dogger Bank, that will need marine support).

It’s already been attracting businesses, including Royal IHC, which moved its IHC Mission Equipment business to the site in January. Others include Global Marine and engineering firm Osbit, as well as contractors, including DeepOcean, Fugro and Canyon Offshore. It’s also home to one of the world’s leading turbine testing facilities, the ORE (offshore renewable energy) Catapult, previously known as Narec (New and Renewable Energy Centre) – the world’s longest wind farm blade is being tested there. And, just 5.7km offshore, the EDF Blyth Offshore Demonstrator Wind Farm is being built, starting with five, 8.3MW turbines (the biggest installed to date), mounted on gravity-based foundations, which were built on the Tyne in Newcastle by BAM Nuttall.

And, this is just the start. This year, Energy Central was launched, working with investment agency ARCH, to bring together several sites at Blyth together. It is supported by Enterprise Zone status, which offers financial incentives, and is hoping to attract decommissioning, offshore wind, and fabrication activities, as well as mobilization and demobilization for new and existing oil and gas fields.

Nearly US$40 million (£30 million) of government funding has already been pledged, with $33.5 million (£26 million) of that to be used for Northumberland Energy Park Phase 1, a 36ha site, which will include a 9m depth, jackup ready, 10-tonne/sq m deepwater quay. A further two phases of the Northumberland Energy Park are proposed.

“We are trying to build up a supply chain cluster,” says port CEO Martin Lawlor, “so everyone has access to the usual range of services they might want – welding, rigging, fabrication, lifting, and flexible labor.”

Lawler points out that labor is 30% cheaper at Port of Blyth than in Aberdeen. This would make the port suitable to mobilization and demobilization activities. “GE Oil & Gas already has reel storage at the site, Royal IHC now has manufacturing and assembly facilities. Then there’s ORE Catapult, Osbit, TSG Marine, Oil Spill Response, lifting equipment firm Lift-Rite, engineering firm Jacobs, and Hainsford Energy.” More are on their way, Lawler says.

The port, once predominantly used for shipping coal, already has crane capacity up to 500-tonne, and 10-tonne/sq m quayside loading capacity, with 1.5km of berth down to 9.5m draft. It has 50ha of sites with deepwater quay access, and a further 200ha with near access. This could be an opportunity for offshore wind construction or an original equipment manufacturer, Lawler says. The port is also a home from home for Newcastle University and hosts an offshore training facility.

The port has many sites, including the Bates Terminal/Wimbourne Quay site, which is being turned into one 15ha site with a heavy lift berth, able to host 180m-long and up to 7.6m draft vessels, and is currently base for construction of the EDF demonstrator. EDF is building an operations and maintenance base at the port’s South Harbour.

Battleship Wharf, a dry bulk terminal with a rail link, has 9.5m draft and can host 200m-long vessels. This could be a future site for oil and gas decommissioning activities, Lawler says. The port has been permitted a draft license for its plan to develop the site as a decommissioning facility able to accept up to 50,000-tonne/year of marine structures for recovery, reuse of disposal. There’s also a former power station site, which has funding agreed for remediation works to turn it into a 200ha site.

Royal IHC

IHC’s Hi-Traq. Image from Royal IHC. 

One of the new tenants at Blyth is Royal IHC. The firm moved on 7 January 2016, to Port of Blyth South Harbour – a move which included some 10,000-tonnes of equipment. 

It was all done without affecting production, says Alan Conway, construction manager at Royal IHC. The firm makes equipment ranging from J-lay towers to defense equipment and all through the 5S lean manufacturing principles – i.e. “sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain.”

Conway likes the fact that in the area there are fabricators, welders, rigging and electrical and mechanical people available for projects. He says this will make it attractive to offshore construction firms when they need to come in to get equipment repaired or modified for specific projects. This has been happening, with the result that some are making it their dedicated port. To support such events, Conway says maintenance and refurbishment agreements can be made, too. “This is one of the best kept secrets out there. There is so much potential. This is just the beginning,” he says.

IHC has 10,000sq m factory space and up to 11,000sq m externally at the site. The firm uses the port’s LR430 crane, with 124-tonne capacity and 24m reach, but also a roll-on, roll-off quay, which means, for the likes of massive 2500-tonne J-Lay towers it builds, a crane will not be needed for load out.

At Port of Blyth, the firm also makes Reel-lay towers, launch and recovery systems, A-frames, and other engineered solutions. This includes the award winning self-leveling Hi-Traq subsea trencher (OE: May 2014). Earlier this year, the first production machine, a four-tracked subsea cable trenching vehicle, was commissioned at Port of Blyth ready for land trials then quayside testing and finally testing offshore. The vehicle, developed to work in up to 1000m water depth, weighing over 50-tonne, and with a tungsten tipped cutter “to cut through the most arduous sea beds,” is due to be added to the firm’s rental fleet.

A gangway supplied by Osbit to jackup vessel operator Seajacks in July.Image from Osbit. 


If the Port of Blyth’s approach is about flexibility, then so is one of its South Harbour tenants, Osbit, which took a unit at Port of Blyth in 2015. This was initially to build two intervention tension frames (ITFs) for Helix with parts related to the same order – towers and decks built at WD Close on the Tyne. But, the firm, which has delivered everything from cable handling systems and subsea docking systems for AUVs to offshore access systems in the past year, has been growing. At the end of the initial contract for the space, Osbit signed a contract to take the 1140sq m space with 15-tonne cranage for another three years and is investing in the site.

“More and more people are moving this way,” says Brendon Hayward, Managing Director, Osbit, partly helped by the port’s flexibility and support. “We intend to use the port as a strategic hub from which to expand Osbit, using our resources to continue to deliver innovative projects on time, while driving down the cost of wind and oil and gas operations.”

Last year and this year, the firm delivered two intervention tension frames (ITFs) to Helix Well Ops for the Siem Helix I and II vessels (OE: July 2017). A further system for Helix’s Q7000 has also been delivered. Earlier this year, Osbit delivered a hybrid monopile cleaning tool to Van Oord.

Meanwhile, for Ecosse Subsea Systems (ESS), Osbit is developing a water-jetting tool that aims to double trench production rates in seabed trenching operations for ESS’ SCARJet subsea vehicle.

The XL blade entering Port of Blyth earlier this year. Image from ORE Catapult.

ORE Catapult

The ORE Catapult is a publicly funded technology innovation and research center for advancing wind, wave and tidal energy. Since it was set up in 2002, originally as (Narec), before merging with ORE Catapult in 2014, the organization has built an enviable set of open-access test facilities, including 50m and 100m blade testing, 3MW tidal turbine nacelle testing, and 15MW wind turbine nacelle testing. It also has an offshore anemometry platform, which is helping to validate floating lidars, and the 7MW Levenouth demonstration turbine, of which a digital twin has been created for sensor and system development. The center also has a turbine benchmarking platform, looking at 94% of installed UK capacity performance, which it hopes to roll out across Europe.

Earlier this year, at 88m-long, the largest built in the world arrived at the center to be tested. The blade, called the XL Blade, has been built by Adwen for the firm’s new 8MW offshore wind turbine. Once testing is completed by year’s end, the blade will be used on a prototype turbine currently being installed at a test site in Germany.

Many small- to medium-sized enterprises use the facility, including Gonsys, Invisotech, tidal energy technology firm Nova Innovation, Edinburgh-based wind turbine blade technology firm ACT Blade, cable firm JDR and tidal energy developer Atlantis Resources.

Work includes projects with the America’s Cup sail rig designers to see how their designs can be used for offshore wind turbines and looking at new types of generators, instead of using rare earths from China. The center is also looking at floating foundations and different substructures.

“A few years ago, the industry’s viability was in doubt, but industry has gone a long way to answer those doubts,” says Chris Hill, lead the innovation program and project teams, ORE Catapult. “There’s been a 32% reduction in costs over the last five years. Much of this is to do with larger turbines, but also increased competition, low cost of capital. And there is more cost reduction to come.”

Ongoing programs include developing knowledge around blades, drive trains, electric infrastructure, and operations and maintenance – including alternative ways to access turbines. There’s a blade leading edge erosion project, to address issues with erosion from salt and sea water, which is seen as a significant issue for the industry. A new test rig to help understand the fundamental issues in this area opened for use in July.

“It’s not just about preventing it, but also repairing it as well, accessing the blades and how to fix issues and what impact will there be on the other two blades,” says Kirsten Dyer, senior materials research engineer, ORE Catapult. Another new facility will be a bearing test rig, to test current bearings. It will be operational this year. A 15MW drive train test facility will also be commissioned this year.

Alongside the new equipment, there are several new projects, including a five-year, $3 million (£2.3 million) research partnership with the University of Bristol, called the Wind Blade Research Hub (WBRH). It is investigating how to build more efficient blades to enable turbine capacity to reach 13-15MW by 2025 by studying blade materials and manufacturing technology, blade integrity and performance. With ScottishPower Renewables (SPR), ORE Catapult has a program, the first project of which is a foundation fabrication feasibility study, to review efficiency opportunities in foundation fabrication.

ORE Catapult is also active in wave and tidal energy development and this year became part of a new European tidal energy project called Enabling Future Arrays in Tidal (EnFAIT). Working with Nova Innovation and other organizations, the project, running from July 2017 this year until June 2022, was awarded EU Horizon 2020 funding to help increase the commercial viability of tidal power by extending the Bluemull Sound array, off Shetland, to six turbines and demonstrating high array reliability and availability.