By Michel Reinders on Mar 4, 2022
Beneath a blue winter sky, the shape of the Pioneering Spirit looms before me. It’s a vessel so huge it can lift a drilling rig from an oil platform in one go. I also marvel at the bulk of some of the biggest container ships in the world, moored just a few hundred metres away. And, as far as I look at this place where the great European rivers Rhine and Meuse have come together and flow into the North Sea, I see large steel storage facilities lining the portside.
The Pioneering Spirit is a 382-metres long, catamaran-style vessel fitted with cranes that can lift rigs and other machinery at sea weighing up to 48,000 tonnes. It lies in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, where I’m talking to Allard Castelein, CEO of the port authority. Castelein is leading a transformation he believes places this port at the forefront of the transition to cleaner energy for shipping and heavy industry.
He knows from personal experience that fundamental change is never easy, but it also offers opportunities. When he was 29, in the 1980s, he quit his job as an assistant surgeon at Erasmus hospital in Rotterdam. Inexperienced but eager, Castelein was hired by Shell as an oil trader.
“It was exciting to go my own way,” he says. “Today, many years later, leading the port through this great transformation, I feel that excitement again.”
Demand for cleaner fuels
Fossil fuels still dominate shipping and modern ports, but as the world tries to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement and tackle climate change, demand for cleaner fuels is accelerating.
Like many companies, the Rotterdam port authority has set a target to reduce carbon emissions. By 2030, the port aims to have lowered its emissions to 55% of the amount the port and the companies on its premises emitted in 1990. By 2050, the port’s goal is net-zero carbon emissions.
The challenge is enormous. Today, oil still represents some 40% of the 470 million tonnes of raw materials and goods that go through Rotterdam every year.
And it is largely because of this oil that the port directly and indirectly supports more than 500,000 jobs and over 6% of the GDP of the Netherlands. Castelein and his port must find a way to attract cleaner transport and cleaner industry, while it keeps providing commodities, jobs, and an income for many thousands of people and businesses.
In fact, Rotterdam has advised many cities across the world, from Pécem in Brazil to Shanghai and from Buenos Aires to Jakarta, on how to build a profitable and sustainable port.
Collaboration paying off
Today, the shipping world is watching to see how Castelein plans to turn Rotterdam into the most sustainable and innovative port in the world, while holding its place at the heart of Europe’s petrochemical and shipping industry.
Collaboration, he says, will be critical: “By joining forces with governments and businesses, we can turn the energy transition into a huge opportunity and give our port and the businesses on its premises an advantage.”
The early results are becoming clear. Parallel to the broad New Waterway, dug in 1872 to connect Rotterdam to the North Sea in a 30-kilometre-long straight line, pipelines that transport oil and gas from the port to surrounding industry stretch for many kilometres.
The port of Rotterdam is adding pipelines for hydrogen, steam, waste, residual heat and carbon dioxide (CO2). The port, together with governments and businesses, also has plans to store this CO2 in depleted gas fields under the North Sea.
In Rotterdam, the task of building this infrastructure is shared between the port, governments and companies, keeping costs and risks low.
Castelein believes this collaboration will confirm Rotterdam as one of the most competitive ports in the world, with companies staying relevant for a long time to come.
The approach is paying off. Shell has plans, pending final investment decision, to build one of the largest electrolysers in the world to produce hydrogen here for industry and transport. It is also building one of the biggest biofuels facilities in Europe on the port’s grounds, where they will turn waste and other sustainable feedstock into renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuels. The Finnish company Neste is also expanding its biofuels facility here.
“Neste are considering coming here instead of their home country,” says Castelein. “I think that proves we are doing something right.”
Shared pipelines form just one of nearly 50 projects the port authority has to help businesses reduce emissions.
Driving further along the New Waterway, I reach the Thialf, one of the biggest crane vessels in the world, and now moored here for winter maintenance.
In the past, the Thialf would rely on diesel generators for power on board while maintenance was carried out. But things are very different today. On the shore next to this immense floating structure there is a so-called e-house. This unimpressive little building functions as a huge socket, providing renewable electricity for the crane ship. The vessel can plug in and receive wind power from turbines in the port when the main engines are turned off, instead of running diesel generators, reducing emissions of CO2, nitrogen and sulphur.
Further along the New Waterway, the port also offers low-carbon and renewable fuels for shipping, such as changing electric batteries for light barges.
But while battery technology is improving fast, the heavy deep-sea cargo ships that come to Rotterdam from all over the world need more range than a reasonably sized battery is likely to provide in the foreseeable future.
Alternatives like ammonia, biofuels and hydrogen might help deep-sea shipping in the future, but these fuels will not be widely available or commercially viable for a long time to come. So Rotterdam also offers refuelling for ships that run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can emit less CO2 and pollutants over its life cycle than heavy fuel oil.
A new way of working
Perhaps as much as what the port authority is doing, success could depend on how it is doing it. The authority used to just manage the port, maintaining the docks, attracting new businesses and making sure ships could navigate safely through the water.
That changed in 2004, when the port developed plans to expand. This entailed reclaiming land from the North Sea for new facilities and infrastructure. This complicated project required co-operation with many different governments, businesses and organisations. It took a long time.
“At the port authority, we thought it was taking too long”, says Castelein. “We asked government to let us take the lead. To our surprise, they agreed, which fundamentally changed the way we work. In the past, our place was to follow others. Today, we often lead the collaboration.”
I say goodbye to Castelein thinking about the Pioneering Spirit, huge container ships and the fundamental change that needs to happen. It’s early days, but I leave the port of Rotterdam convinced that I’ve seen evidence of some real progress in its transformation.