The order books of logistics companies are the seismographs of the economy: increasing freight rates and fully-booked fleets indicate boom periods, while empty warehouses and cargo ships lying in the roads suggest a crisis situation.
The logistics sector constantly has to adapt to the changing requirements of its clients and the markets in question. One of the greatest challenges at the moment is supporting the transition to renewable energies demanded by politicians. Germany’s last nuclear power plant will be taken offline in 2022. Alongside this gradual shutdown, dependency on fossil fuels is to be reduced in favour of renewable energies. The targets named by the federal government are ambitious: the German Renewable Energies Act (EEG) and its latest amendments aim to increase the proportion of renewable energies in the power supply to 35 per cent as early as 2020.
The ports have a big role to play in achieving these goals – and not only as hubs for the offshore wind industry or for the shipment and storage of biomass. They are also important for meeting demand for the fossil fuels which are still needed, such as in the import of coal, since domestic production of hard coal is to be reduced to almost nothing over the next few years: in accordance with targets set by the EU Commission, German hard coal mining will be shut down by 2018 at the latest.
Coal remains an integral part of the energy mix. It is clear that a complete phase-out of fossil fuels is not achievable in the next few years, meaning that their use will become more closely oriented on requirements. However, if energy sources such as coal are handicapped with regard to their profitability in competition – such as through reapportionment for green electricity – this makes it more difficult for companies active on the electricity markets to act methodically. Through the EEG reapportionment alone, 14 billion euros were added to the production costs of fossil energy in 2011, and this is set to increase. In addition, over 200 billion euros must be invested in renewable energies in Germany by 2020.
Needless to say, these development scenarios affect the ports, too. If the conditions change as unexpectedly as last year, companies will find sustainable planning all but impossible: who will invest significant funds in the costly expansion of terminals, such as that carried out by Rhenus on the Niedersachsenbrücke bridge in Wilhelmshaven, if they cannot be sure that the statutory guidelines have a reasonable half-life which will allow strong economic planning?
In the same way, new concepts for power plant supply will have to emerge at the sea and inland ports in order to make the storage and distribution of coal more flexible. The black gold is a natural energy repository and far superior to other forms of electricity conservation. If the proportion of regenerative resources with often fluctuating availability in the energy mix is to increase, the development of significant storage capacities, the expansion of power transmission and distribution networks and the modernisation of conventional power plants will be essential – only then can renewable energies be fed reliably into the network. In turn, this requires that coal power plants can be supplied with the fossil fuel flexibly by the ports. For example, a port whose suprastructure is based on a constant throughput of coal cannot be used for additional storage without extensive capital expenditure, because significantly larger storage areas must be created, among other things.
Offshore wind energy as a future market. According to the energy concept of Niedersachsen, wind power “is at the heart of the conversion of electricity generation capacity in Germany, since it offers the greatest potential for expanding electricity generation. Without the use of offshore wind energy, Germany will be unable to meet its goals for the expansion of renewable energies and climate protection.”
And, we might add, without the services provided by port operators, the energy supply companies and their partners will be unable to implement these targets. A look at the classification types of the central association of german sea port operations shows which roles these maritime locations will have to play: the terms installation ports, production ports, import and export ports, reaction ports and supply ports are used to describe the wide variety of functions on the wharf for the erection of offshore capacity and for service and maintenance for wind parks.
In the logistics sector, the number of specific projects for the industry to implement is growing and the requirements of the port operators are becoming more specific; as a service provider, we can sense this at our terminals in Nordenham, Wilhelmshaven and not least Cuxhaven, which are predestined for offshore business. However, these problems have recently been displaced by delays caused by a lack of power supply lines at sea.
The increasing dynamism which characterises this sector could admittedly use some industrialisation of its logistics processes, as has been seen in the automotive industry for many decades. In this, improvements to optimise the logistics chains are predominantly generated from experience gained through the implementation of some first projects, as well as from investigating successful concepts from other economic fields, which can be transferred to the offshore sector. With its opportunities for logistics, the port industry will contribute to the erection and expansion of wind parks on the high seas, so that more clean energy can be generated in the future.
Future prospects. Given the finite nature of fossil fuels, the transition to renewable energies is unavoidable, even if there is criticism of the inconsistency and lack of clarity of individual decisions or the road map. From a business point of view, a high level of predictability in the legislative and financial conditions appears important. This desire includes both support for the private economy through targeted publicly funded subsidies, without which a national task on this scale cannot be achieved, and recognition of the contribution made by conventional energy sources to covering demand. An unreasonably strong preference for renewable energies may put security of supply on the line, while above all influencing cost structures in Germany as an industrial location. For the benefit of the economy which will hopefully continue to prosper in the future, no reckless actions should be taken when it comes to the energy supply of an entire economy.
Born in 1955, the author studied at the Technische Universität Braunschweig and completed his doctoral studies there. Between 1984 and 2002, he held managerial positions at Holzmann AG, Thyssen Sonnenberg GmbH and Interseroh AG. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the executive board of Rhenus Port Logistics and is responsible for the corporation’s sea and inland ports.