Ports, major players in the energy transition

Science topics November 2013 EnergyMaterials and structures

The example of ERA Fret: Freight, Efficiency and Areas

Maritime and river port areas are central to many industrial, economic and environmental issues. IFSTTAR’s SPLOTT laboratory and the associated (Era) Fret research team are studying the impacts of their new logistics dynamics and their interactions with inland areas.

As gateways for globalization, ports handle a major share of European trade in raw materials, iron and steel products, energy and containers, etc. In an economy that is in transition, the nature, volume and distribution of these flows changes, affecting the financial equilibria of port communities in particular as a result of passage dues payable by vessels and income from real estate. Port authorities and port firms need to adapt in order to maintain their current level of activity and take advantage of new types of traffic or attract new jobs in green industry. The central questions facing industrial port areas are therefore: How can ports develop new logistical solutions? What solutions should they propose in order to remain attractive?


As part of the Strategic and Incentivized Research Operation (ORSI)1 « Logistics and transport issues connected with new distribution and production practices », researchers from ERA Fret, Cete2 de l’Ouest and Nord-Picardie and the SPLOTT laboratory at IFSTTAR are studying these dynamics and the systems issues associated with them. The aim is to shed light on the role of ports in the new geography of logistics and transport chains that is created by the transition of industrial sectors to a low carbon economy that consumes fewer raw materials. 

The researchers have noted that port communities are redeveloping their traditional transit functions, for example to adapt to the needs of the wind generator industry. In addition, they are acquiring new regional planning functions. This applies to the Port of Strasbourg, for example, which is installing a deep geothermal energy facility to supply energy to the firms at the port and the urban community. Other European ports such as Rotterdam are investigating are investigating the potential of industrial ecology in order to optimize the port’s “materials” and “fluids” balances and organize exchanges between plants. Some ports have programmes that attempt to limit pollution (shore power for vessels, motorization of freight handling machinery, age limits for trucks entering the port terminals). Others, particularly in Scandinavia, store and provide liquefied natural gas (LNG) to fuel the new generations of gas powered vessels [4]. These trends are important in the context of the forthcoming standards for sulphur and marine fuels (SECA3 in 2015 and OMI in 2020). If oil companies are not able to provide sufficient quantities of desulphurised fuel many vessels will have to switch from heavy fuel oil to LNG or use exhaust gas scrubbers. These standards could also generate modal transfer to the road or intermodal transfers, for example to the tunnel in the case of cross-channel traffic. All these developments need to be closely monitored to avoid the unexpected consequences that may result from a public environmental policy.


1 «Logistics and transport issues connected with new distribution and production practices» : In addition to ports, this ORSI (Strategic and Incentivised Research Operation) deals with cities and urban logistics.

2 On 1st January 2014, the 8 CETEs, the Certu, the Cetmef and the Sétra will merge to form Cerema : Centre For Studies and Expertise on Risks, Environment, Mobility, and Urban and Country Planning.

3 The SECA standard for sulphur in Northern Europe (The English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic) and the ECA standard for all local atmospheric pollutants in North America. The future standards will impose a new maximum sulphur content of 0.1% instead of 1.0% while the level in heavy fuels is still 3.5% (outside the SECA zone).