Thinking outside the box has sprung a myriad of innovations throughout history and it is what is keeping us “alive and ticking”. The maritime industry has had its share of innovative thinking, especially over the recent years with the swooping development of technology.
As the shipping industry outgrows its infrastructural capacity to feed the insatiable appetite for trade of goods across the world, windows of opportunities are opening for those thinking outside the box. One of the most innovative ideas that has sparked our attention is the concept of offshore ports.
World Maritime News Staff spoke with Mr Marco Pluijm, Bechtel’s ports sector manager, who delivered a presentation at the recent African Ports Evolution 2014 Forum. His presentation focused on the changing nature of global shipping and the advantages that offshore ports offer, particularly in Africa and the USA, two of the regions that would most benefit from increased capacity.
According to Mr Pluijm, the offshore port finds its origin in the mining industry. The concept entails offshore facilities for handling large volumes of dry bulk, like iron ore and coal.
Pluijm: “As ships get increasingly larger, it’s necessary to look offshore in parts of the Africa and the USA to find sufficient water depth to accommodate these ships. For example, Capesize vessels require a water depth of 20-25m, which may only be found 10 to 15 kilometres offshore. Basically, the offshore port is a fixed structure; like a rig with terminal facilities for either bulk or containers.
It can also be an artificial island, like Khalifa Port, protected by breakwaters to protect it from washing out by the sea or a more exposed platform with dynamic controlled mooring and fender systems. Size wise, in its initial stage, it can have up to three berths, 1600 meters long and 300-400 meters wide.”
WMN: You mentioned that two areas which would most benefit from offshore ports, are West Africa and the U.S. East Coast. What is needed for these areas to proceed with an offshore port?
Pluijm: “It is quite simple really: in general it’s a political decision and once approved, a commercial decision. Somebody needs to decide to go ahead with an offshore port. There are many reasons why people want to stick to using a traditional port but in some cases, they don’t provide the best solution. For example, in Mozambique, shipping bulk out via the existing ports, wouldn’t work if you wanted to develop bigger mining projects, as it simply wouldn’t be cost effective.”
WMN: Has there been any interest from relevant stakeholders to implement these projects so far?
Pluijm: “We have been working with a number of organisations to further develop this concept and ensure that the business aspect is fully aligned. We have had interest from third-parties including marine contractors, platform operators and terminal operators. However, we still need the go-ahead from either a mining or container company, or a government.
For example, an offshore port could be a good solution for the Simandou project, where talks are underway for a river port. However, a river port will suffer due to the cost of the massive amount of dredging needed. If an offshore facility was chosen, all that dredging would not be necessary because the offshore facility would already be sited at an adequate water depth, and that improves the overall economic and commercial viability and feasibility of a project.”
WMN: What about the impact of this concept on other market sectors? How do you think dredging companies or existing ports will react to this concept? Will they be willing to accept it or will they fear they might lose business?
Pluijm: “Dredging companies and marine contractors see the benefits as dredging is still part of the solution in terms of building the platform, protection or dynamic mooring structure and the quay wall for such an offshore port.
Terminal operators are also interested in the concept as they will not need to invest in significant upgrades of existing ports and will still play a major role in the operation and as key – short sea shipping or barging – link to the offshore port.
WMN: Do you see terminal operators investing in these offshore ports within their scope of expansion?
Pluijm: “Yes, we have discussed the idea with transshipment operators in Africa as well as in South America. Those transshipment companies experience considerable operational downtime of about six months a year due to heavy swell conditions and are definitely interested in participating in, and developing this idea.
They have also committed to supporting some additional research led by Bechtel, in order to learn more about the effect of wave conditions on loading and unloading large cargo ships in such wave conditions.
WMN: The proposal for Venice offshore terminal, which was aimed at expanding cargo operations was announced in 2012. Two years on, the project is still pending environmental studies. Could offshore ports develop more rapidly?
Pluijm: “The Venice proposal by Halcrow is situated in an estuary, and has a number of significant differences with what we are proposing. An offshore hub or an offshore island is also much more environmentally-friendly because its footprint is much smaller.
The only footprint it has is the location of the port structure. Whereas, if you were to, for instance, select to build a shore-based port, usually this entails a massive amount of dredging for many years afterwards that affects the coastal system enormously in terms of sediment balance, currents and waves, along of course with the aquatic environment linked to it. So, the environmental impact of these traditional ports is quite different compared to what we propose.”
WMN: Could you elaborate on the multi-user part of the Multi-User Offshore Ports concept? Who will be the users of these offshore hubs?
Pluijm: “Users of what we initially called the “multi-user offshore hub” would most likely be mining companies, closely located to each other. But we are also talking to companies like container companies that would like to operate these on their own, so these could also be single-user hubs. This is why we’re renaming it an “offshore port”.
The benefits for the US bound container traffic for example, would be enormous, as you would have ships from China going directly to the US East Coast, via the Suez Canal. Direct transport cost savings on those containers would be massive as you would be able to use bigger container ships and avoid long railroad transport and trucking.”
WMN: How do you see the creation of these offshore ports impacting on established shipping routes? Could we see new shipping routes emerging as an immediate result?
Pluijm: “Right now, the biggest container vessels that sail via the existing routes, crossing the Panama Canal, head to the Caribbean where they discharge their cargo into smaller vessels. Then, these smaller vessels go via the Caribbean into various US ports.
It would be a major achievement for everyone if you could have an offshore port where these bigger vessels could go to, bearing in mind that even larger vessels are on their way.
We are currently talking about the 18,000 TEU ships, but the 22,000 TEU ships are already in the making. The same scenario applies to Africa where cascading down ships will result in larger vessels being sent there.
So the offshore port concept would bring cost savings there as well. It is not unthinkable that a container shipping line could develop a similar solution, so in that respect shipping routes could change as well.”
WMN: What is the way forward for offshore ports? When can we expect the first ports to become operational?
Pluijm: “Building them can take two to three years, including obtaining impact assessments. Two years for a bulk facility, for containers it may take a year longer because of the difference in size. The actual construction time is a year or two years respectively.
We are currently talking to various parties including the US Government and the response has been good. Hopefully next year, we will have more news on this front.