The Port of Aberdeen – and the north east in general – may have missed out on the opportunities offered by Green Freeport status, but with a £400m expansion underway that will make it Scotland's biggest port, the historic facility and surrounding area is in a prime position to reap the benefits of Scotland's transition to renewables. By Andrew Collier


When it comes to port operation, Port of Aberdeen certainly can’t be accused of a lack of experience. It has been in existence for nearly 900 years. First established by King David I of Scotland, it is said to be the oldest existing business in Britain.

Despite its illustrious past, the port is now looking firmly to the future. The current expansion of its facilities is also set to make history when it becomes fully operational as the largest current marine infrastructure project in the UK.

This latest development project is truly impressive, costing some £400 million, it will make Aberdeen the biggest 
berthage port in Scotland, adding an extra 1.5 kilometres of quayside to the existing 5.9 kilometres and allowing it to handle larger, deeper and wider vessels.

“We began to bring customers into Aberdeen South Harbour – the new area – with a soft start around July of last year, and since then welcomed more than 50 vessels in”, says Roddy James, the port’s Chief Commercial Officer. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to bring them in until then, but we can now accommodate them with our larger non tidal restricted infrastructure.”


Where vessels were coming in before, doing a crew change and then leaving again quickly, they are now spending longer time on maintenance and layup, he adds. “So we’ve moved into a different market we were never able to capture before.”

The expansion work is not quite finished: the remainder of Castlegate Quay will be open shortly and the final one, the Balmoral Quay, which will be predominantly used by cruise vessels, will be fully operational during the second quarter of 2023. Aberdeen South Harbour will then be complete.

By then, the overall number of berths will have increased substantially  making it the largest port in Scotland.

Mr James says that the port will be building its business by focusing on a number of key markets. They include offshore wind, which is expected to generate considerable activity following the ScotWind licensing round, which is set to lead to offshore developments generating an additional 25 gigawatts of power.

Port of Aberdeen is extremely well placed to handle this. The area has been at the centre of the offshore energy industry for decades and the port has been a vital part of it, connecting the sea with the shore.

“If you look at ScotWind, we know that if you draw a line out from Aberdeen, we can service almost half the capacity. So we’re in a prime location with the 
developed supply chain around us as well with 50 years of experience of these kinds of projects. We also have the largest volume of energy related vessels turnarounds in the UK.

“It’s about having a just transition and using the history and the knowledge that we’ve built up to drive the next wave. We have the Energy Transition Zone (ETZ) located next to the south harbour – which will provide the facilities that industry employers and employees really need to firmly establish that transition to green energy.”


Aberdeen Bay’s offshore windfarm is home to the world’s first hydrogen-producing wind turbines with the gas being piped ashore at the Port of Aberdeen


The ETZ will enable centres of excellence based on floating wind, renewables, hydrogen and other future green technologies. The port has partnered with the organisation, which will be developing areas around Aberdeen South Harbour.

AS the move to new green energy sources is a transition rather than a sudden step change, Port of Aberdeen is also continuing to service the traditional oil and gas industry. Of the 7,000 or so vessels using the harbour every year, half are related to this sector, many of them platform supply vessels

Decommissioning of existing structures is also an important part of its activity. “For reasons of security we have to have a smooth integration into green energy as well as it being a matter of strategy.”

Before last year’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine erupted, Roddy James believes that the oil and gas sector was going through what he terms a survival phase. Now it is undergoing something of a revival, with new bids being made for licensing.

The ports’s other streams of business include no less than 40 international trading routes. “We’re very much an integrated service and logistics hub not only for the energy industry but also general cargo – we also have around four million tonnes of cargo coming through here every year.”

Ferries are also an important part of the port’s business, with regular services to the Northern Isles. “The South Harbour expansion isn’t to service the same sort of vessels – it’s to look outside the box and to bring in larger, wider and deeper ships, and we’re seeing that now.

“It’s also about being able to accommodate different types of vessel. We’re also incorporating large laydown areas that allow us to carry out heavy lifting. It’s about bringing projects to the area that we can now handle because of the expansion of quay areas and depth at the quayside.”


Port of Aberdeen’s new South Harbour in the forefront and North Harbour in the distance


One recent blow that Port of Aberdeen has faced is that it did not make the final selection of two Scottish green freeports, with these being awarded to the Forth and Cromarty ports instead.

Roddy James concedes that this decision was a disappointment, not just for the port but for the whole of the north east. “We were in a consortium with others including Peterhead Port Authority, Aberdeen International Airport, Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council, and clearly everyone is disappointed.

“We do wish Cromarty and Forth well in their bids, but to me it’s a missed opportunity for this part of the world.” 

Will the port’s strategy now change? He says not. “We will continue on the same path.

To have won the bid would have been beneficial, but it’s not going to stop us. The north east is very resilient – you can see that in the way it has dealt with the highs and lows in the lifecycle of the oil and gas industry.

“It has embraced the energy transition, as has the whole supply chain within the region. We’re keen that we continue to chase other projects such as carbon capture, hydrogen production and the areas that ETZ are proposing. 

“We’ll also continue along with our partners to speak to the Scottish and UK governments to understand what additional investments and employment opportunities we can continue to support. We’re certainly not lying back and rolling over.”

HYDROGEN is seen as a particular area of interest for the future. Aberdeen is already ahead of the rest of the UK in its use of this – the local buses have been using it as a fuel for a number of years.

“We are discussing with various parties how we can take the next step towards green hydrogen, which involves producing it from a renewable source, then using it either as a power source for vessels coming into the harbour or transporting it to the port for shipment elsewhere.”

Determined efforts have been made to ensure that the port makes its contribution to lowering carbon emissions and supporting the green economy. It carried out a feasibility study with government support in 2021 to look at its own carbon output and discovered that nearly 80 per cent came from vessels berthed in the port.

As a result, it is now installing green shore power to supply the ships, with one supply put into the Northlink ferry terminal and another into a larger area. “A vessel will be able to come in, plug in and switch off its main engines, minimising both noise and air pollution.”

The South Harbour has also been planned so that the energy sources of the future – including ones that have not even been introduced yet – can easily be brought onstream when they arrive without huge amounts of work having to be carried out.

“We have all the infrastructure in place – it’s almost like a plug and play system that can handle whatever the industry deems to be the next step”, Mr James says.

The port has set its own net zero target date of 2040, which is earlier than the 2045 applied by the Scottish Government and the 2050 chosen by the UK as a whole. He is confident that, despite the challenges, that date can be met.

“Sustainability and decarbonisation are very much part of our strategy for the port going forward. With the expertise and the area that we have, we are very well placed for the future.” 

The fact that Port of Aberdeen is a trust port and can afford to invest 10 times its annual turnover in a single project shows its belief in how it can perform, he adds. “In the last 10 years, we have spent more than half a billion pounds on infrastructure and we’re continuing to invest.

“We’ve been here for 900 years and now we’re preparing for what is to come. It’s an exciting time for us.”