ABP – Setting Sail to a Sustainable Future

We learn about the pioneering role Associated British Ports (ABP) is playing in making the UK more sustainable.

Associated British Ports owns and operates 21 ports as well as Hams Hall Rail Terminal. While they are an absolutely critical part of the UK’s logistics infrastructure, the average person in the street might not have necessarily heard of them.

“We own larger ports in Scotland, on Humber and the North Sea Coast, as well as down in Southampton, Wales and East Anglia. ABP is a business that in terms of trade is materially important to the UK,” explains Alan Tinline, the Head of Environment for the company. “Looking out of my window in Ipswich I see a wide range of cargos- from timber to grain, we’ve also got aggregates. Most people don’t really get the amount of stuff going in and out of our ports, but it makes for an interesting and exciting career.”

Maritime is also a business sector that is undergoing rapid change, existing within a constantly shifting political landscape, as well as having to adjust to handling different cargos at different times. ABP’s focus on the environment has also been intensifying in the past couple of years.

Renewing Interest

That is why ABP has been making significant investments in renewable energy.

“ABP started down that route in 2011, before I joined, with a single 10 kW solar array at the Port of Fleetwood, and have been growing in that sector ever since,” Tinline says. “They’ve worked in this sector in terms of solar, going from 10 MW to 15 MW, with 5 MW of wind turbines and another 2.6 MW plant that will come online this year. ABP has installed 55,000 solar panels around our estates. We have generated significant amounts of electricity for our own and our customers’ use.”

It’s a sector that ABP has been investing in for nearly ten years, to try and decrease its own carbon footprint as well as that of its customers.

“It helps us to increase our energy resilience so we’re not reliant on third-party providers. This means there are good, sound business reasons as well as environmental reasons,” Tinline tells us. “That’s the key really. If we want to find solutions that are good for the environment, they need to be genuinely sustainable and that means taking into account the financial aspect as well.”

To emphasise this point, Tinline points to the work ABP has done servicing large areas of the offshore wind industry, creating new jobs as well as clean energy. What’s more, he sees green energy as a way to bring high-quality jobs to areas of the country that may have gone through economic decline.

However, while the necessity for and the potential of renewable energy are undeniable, there are certainly challenges in bringing it to a country, with a power grid infrastructure that is built for older forms of power generation.

“The way the grid is designed in the UK is to push electricity from central power stations out, not the other way around. We’re creating smaller local power stations so there’s a challenge in making sure we align renewable production to existing designs,” Tinline says. “The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, but when it does we need to harvest the energy and store it, so that’s one thing we’re looking at.”.

Chasing Innovation

ABP has a team dedicated to investigating these questions, looking at how to continue along the path that they are on, in order to reduce carbon intensity over the next ten years.

As Tinline explains, “We’re actively seeking solutions at the moment. We have invited businesses to pitch novel technologies to us to help us maximise the use of renewable energy in our equipment and port estate. We’re continually doing this, seeing what’s new.”

Battery storage is an area Tinline particularly believes has potential.

“We focus on questions like: Can we store energy during the day to use at night? We’re looking at the new fuels people are talking about, such as hydrogen fuel cells, asking if we can generate hydrogen from our renewable facilities?” Tinline says. “Whether they’ll become viable this year, next year or in five years, I don’t know but we need to continue to try different options.”

Of course, keeping up to date with the latest developments is a challenge in itself.

“We also work with the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). We have Liz English, our innovation specialist who is actively helping us make advancements in the renewable energy sector. As part of our collaboration with KTN we set up three challenges and asked if people can help us to decarbonise, reduce greenhouse gases and support cleaner air initiatives,” explains Tinline. “Some of it was around behaviour changes, how to use equipment to maximise efficiency, and that’s important.”

Rethinking Your Approach

This continuous change, the constant need to improve, is a key part of the way ABP works. They’re currently being recertified for ISO 50001, a certification that recognises continual improvement, not just through new technologies but through rigorous internal training. Indeed, often more sustainable solutions can be found no with some high-tech new piece of machinery, but by simply rethinking the way you work with what you have.

“Our port managers are looking at how they’re rearranging the layout of some ports to make them more efficient, with the obvious benefit that if the equipment moves around less there’s more energy efficiency,” Tinline points out.

“We’ve got some great stories to tell about the number of trucks we’ve taken off the road with coastal shipping, using one boat instead of dozens and dozens of lorries. We’ve got good rail connections even to places you wouldn’t imagine. We’ve made big steps forward just by doing that even before we look at novel technologies.”

All in all, Tinline is thrilled to see what happens next.

“It’s promising. It looks really exciting if you are into sustainability like I am. In Lowestoft, Barrow we’re seeing good quality jobs coming back to areas of the country that need it and deserve it and are rising to the challenge,” he says. “And it’s a big challenge, to avoid climate change we’re talking an eight-fold increase in wind power. There will be new fuels and energy, it’s changing all the time. There are carbon capture and storage. People who aren’t in the ports industry think we just move crates around, but the way we do that has a huge part to play in making the UK more sustainable.”


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