I’ve just spent the last six months of my life researching British ports. I know, lucky me. 

That’s 182 days on the phone, on the internet and sometimes on the edge of sanity.   

Or 4,380 hours to be exact, on a research project I’d assumed would be all wrapped up after a few days hunched over a laptop, armed only with a steady supply of strong coffee to ward off the tedium.  Wrong! 

It’s my job to do all the research into an industrial sector before we go out to film our digital series. Think of me as a Cinderella type, hidden away in the background, doing the hard work, only for our reporters and producers to come in and grab the glory.   

When I was told to research the role of ports in Britain’s green economy of the future, I thought ‘what a doddle!’. Whatever role they have will surely be insignificant, marginal and probably just involve ferrying a few people over to Calais to buy cheap booze.     

Like Cinderella I’m thorough, conscientious, hard-working and wear ill-fitting shoes.    

Starting my research

So first port of call in any research project is personal experience.   

I quickly remembered my 8-year-old self, thinking I was boarding a Thunderbird to France, due to the ginormous number 2 overhead at the Dover ferry terminals. 

I don’t believe I ever gave ports a second thought after that.

So next, coffee in hand I sat down at my computer and, not to labour the Disney character metaphor, ‘a Whole New World’ emerged before my eyes! 

To most of us, a port is an unknown factor in our lives. We may drive past it or even travel through one, but we tend not to give it much more thought. 

Which is ironic, considering we are an island nation and without them we would be royally stuffed, particularly with the extra air pollution from air freight. 

What we don’t realise is those massive containers, with shady characters emerging from in the movies, is actually how your new fridge with an oh-so-posh water filtration system is being transported from the Far East. 

How about those new jeans that you had to have? Or the paracetamol for the morning after the jeans debut. 

But it’s not just cargo ports, it’s the fishing harbours supporting sustainable fishing. The cruise terminals, enabling tourism on a mass scale but with half the carbon footprint of aeroplanes. 

Or the ferry terminals in the Scottish Isles which are the lifeline for the remote communities. 

The backbone of our economy

Across the breadth of the country, our ports are the backbone of many local economies and communities, and either our everyday items or ourselves will visit a UK port at least once in its lifecycle. 

And when prime minister Boris Johnson announced his 10-point net zero plan in November 2020, I pictured a British bulldog yapping away, all bark and no bite. 

Yet, port operators sat up and listened, with many already ahead of the PM, implementing small changes that are tackling climate change, one boat at a time. 

I knew I needed a true representation of UK ports.

So, I downloaded a map of the UK. One by one, coast by coast, I started adding the ports I had spoken to.

I started on the Northern Coast. The Northern Sea is a gold mine for offshore renewable energy, but what role do ports play? 

Captain Tom Hutchison, CEO of Montrose Port Authority, explained; the port is the operations and maintenance hub for the SeaGreen Offshore Wind Farm, powering 1.6 million homes when completed. 

This contract with SeaGreen and Montrose not only makes net zero a step closer, but has generated an economic goldmine for the local community also.  

A coastal tour

Next on my map tour, Wales. 

Speaking to the Port of Milford Haven, which is gearing up to assist in capturing the 50GW of renewable power available in the Celtic Sea, it was clear; ports are at the centre of the installation and maintenance of renewable energy systems. 

But ports are also looking at ways they can move away from carbon powered operations altogether. 

Portsmouth International Port has been working towards improving its impact on the environment since 1998. Jeremy Clarke, Senior Project Manager, explained to me how they are harnessing sea water and wind-capture for natural air conditioning and temperature control in the terminals.

And it’s not just carbon cutting. Ports are protecting the environments in which they sit. 

Tim Gardiner, Biodiversity Officer at the Environment Agency is working alongside Harwich Haven Authority to replant sea grass in the Harwich Haven estuary. 

And up in Scotland, Orkney Harbour Authority haver their own in-house environmental team, observing the port’s operations on the Scapa Flow ecosystem. 

My map was looking spectacularly full and green. 

But I needed to understand the role of the digital age on ports. 

Ports in the digital age?

CalMac Harbours is optimising its port operations with ION’s Marlin SmartPort, improving port call times and fuel efficiency, meaning a more reliable carbon efficient journey. 

My map was all the evidence I needed. Ports are gearing up to become the industrial green hubs of the future, as Baroness Brown, Chair of the Carbon Trust, put it. 

So, what can I say about ports now? 

Well, they are definitely not a doddle, not even close. 

They may not be the Thunderbird 1, 2 or even 3 – that was always my favourite, but they are the British bulldog with the bite in the UK’s mission to become net zero. 

Our tourism, energy supplies and export and import trade would be lost without them. Our ports deliver our medicines, cars, computers, phones, clothes and food 24 hours, 7 days a week. Without them, the UK way of life would be gravely different. 

So, next time the washing machine packs in on a Sunday evening, with the kid’s school uniform soaked inside, give a thought to the ports before you hit order on prime. 

Abigail Roels, Programme Manager

BPA Ports Animation
Gateways to Growth
Content With Purpose