We know the locations and we know something about the framework in terms of dimensions, tax breaks and Customs technicalities. But what do we really know about the new Freeports being planned in England?
The question of where was answered earlier this year, when the Government gave the go-ahead for eight Freeport proposals. Now, the successful bidders must prepare their business cases, which will be assessed and approved by the Government before the final go-ahead is given. Each Freeport consortium will be required to set up a Freeport Governing Body, which will be accountable to government for their Freeport’s development and success.
Recent polling showed that 75% of people think that more green jobs are key to the post-Covid recovery. Echoing that sentiment, now is the time for both bidders and government to drive forward proposals with high standards, decent green credentials, and care for the environment – in short, ensuring that Freeports do not turn into ‘free-for-all’ ports.
Meeting the needs of a green economy
There is an old joke about asking a local to give directions to a location. “If I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here,” is the reply. That is often the case with major developments, which can be constrained by previous history and the need for ‘retrofitting’ around existing infrastructure. While Freeports will necessarily have to build on elements of what is already there, they will feature some sites that present a rare opportunity to start afresh. Whichever it is – a blank sheet of paper or retrofitting – the agenda must be one of decarbonisation, digitalisation and smarter logistics.
A key aspiration of Freeports is to boost the local economy and create new opportunities, especially around green tech. The development of Green Port Hull would be good example of what can be achieved in this regard. Siemens worked with Associated British Ports to develop a world-class centre for the offshore wind, renewable energy, green tech and low-carbon sectors, occupying a large area of land reclaimed from the Humber; the development has become a catalyst for green energy in the region.
As a member of the UK’s Build Back Better Council, Carl Ennis, CEO of Siemens, has insisted that industry must push for the best working standards and the greenest solutions possible. As he says, we must ensure that we level up, not down. We must build the best quality, smartest, most environmentally friendly infrastructure, to last for decades. We must pay attention to the detail and work to establish real, lasting, green jobs.
The UK needs a long-term strategy to strengthen its industrial landscape and give businesses the certainty and the confidence they need in order to invest. Perhaps Freeports represent a tick on some companies’ wish lists, with their promise of simpler planning rules to help businesses to build quickly or adapt premises in the area. But that must be only a small part of a much larger, smarter picture.
Freeports are not only about attracting traditional import/export business to an area, but also about the role these facilities can play in wider regeneration. Thus, the Freeport ideal needs to be aligned with the Government’s green agenda, with the focus on innovation in transport, technology and alternative fuels.
This brings us full circle back to the green energy that should be at the heart of the concept. The IMO’s Fourth Greenhouse Gas Study 2020 gives an idea of the challenges ahead. International shipping’s CO2 emissions increased by 9.3% in the six years to 2018, to reach 1,056 million tonnes, says the report. Shipping accounted for 2.89% of global GHG emissions in 2018. That same year, the IMO published a Port Emissions Toolkit guide, stating: “As more attention is focused on reducing emissions from the marine shipping sector, ports are driven to understand the magnitude of the air emissions impact from their operations on the local and global community and to develop strategies to reduce this impact.”
Across ports, logistics, manufacturing and wider technology and industry, we know that digitalisation, automation and increased connectivity, aligned with smart, green energy, can unlock huge potential and create smart, responsive, low-carbon, lower cost operations for all.
From onshore power enabling ships to ‘plug in’ and switch off their engines, to electrification of buses and other vehicles and equipment, to remote control and automated operations, the future will depend on reliable, clean power. Attention must be paid to how and where the power will be generated, stored and supplied.
Depending on location, grid edge and microgrid ‘mini substation’ solutions will likely be part of the mix, working in tandem with onsite and offsite renewables, and using technology to minimise waste, iron out the peaks and troughs in demand, and deliver consistent, cost-effective power supplies.
None of this ‘just happens’. Siemens is constantly working with maritime and other industry customers to design, develop and implement green, low-carbon power solutions and enable smart, efficient logistics processes and information flow. Our consulting team provide expertise which can underpin digital tech and smart power across manufacturing clusters and office buildings alike.
The opportunities are there for electrification and energy storage for port cranes, for example, hence reducing carbon emissions and avoiding the extra costs that are coming when the red diesel subsidy comes to an end.
Digitalisation should form the foundation of Freeport plans. Here is the perfect opportunity to exploit the potential of the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and the way it connects sensors, instruments and other devices across manufacturing and energy management operations. Siemens’ MindSphere, a leading IIoT as a service solution, applies advanced analytics and AI to data collected from connected products, plant and systems to optimise operations, create better quality products and deploy new business models. In the port context, such powerful cloud analytics can ensure efficient maintenance operations and gain insight into port assets using a digital twin – informing the operator when to intervene rather than sticking to unnecessary scheduled maintenance with associated costs.
Indeed, the creation of a digital twin is a good starting point in many scenarios, offering a risk-free way, before any investment in physical equipment, to map an entire area of operation, understand cargo or vehicle flows, analyse the ups and downs of energy usage, predict how requirements might change, and optimise the use of power and integrated technologies to drive the operations of the future.
The decarbonisation agenda is here and now. Freeports – sometimes described as ‘enterprise zones with bells on’ – must lead the way. Smart, green power and innovative processes are not simply ‘nice to have’. They should be the foundation on which everything else is built.
In short: Freeports must lead the way.