Losing traffic to ports on the east and Gulf coasts, America’s premier ocean gateway, the ports making up the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex seem to be charting different courses.
LA retained its crown as the busiest container port in the US, but LB has slipped from its customary second ranking to third, behind New York/New Jersey, despite clocking up its second-highest volume on record.
There is much speculation over how much of the lost traffic will return once west coast terminal operators and labour have come to an agreement in their lengthy contract talks, but while getting back volumes appears to be top priority in LA, LB’s operators seem less anxious to claw it back.
In his state of the port address, LB executive director Mario Cordero appeared to be more interested in a different issue: reducing the port’s CO2 footprint and targeting the nascent offshore wind generation business.
The port is planning to create a 400-acre wind turbine manufacturing facility on newly built land, which would be the largest in the US. After assembly, towers would be towed out to wind farms about 20 miles off the coast of California.
Pier Wind, as the project is called, would involve a terminal with heavylift wharves and cranes, and ample lay-down space for wind energy components. The port is conducting a $1m conceptual design, scheduled for completion next month.
Offshore wind energy development is moving forward after the state of California conducted its first offshore wind auction of five leases in Humboldt Bay and Morro Bay in December.
The port of Long Beach is an unlikely contender for a base for wind tower assembly. Typically, this is associated with smaller, uncongested breakbulk ports. The first offshore wind project on the west coast is at Humboldt Bay, where the terminal will be replaced by a heavylift facility, supported by more than 40 acres of tarmac, in a joint-venture between the port authority and Crowley Wind Services, a subsidiary of a US shipping firm.
However, the LB port authority argues it is well suited for wind tower assembly and logistics, as it is adjacent to a deep and wide shipping channel, sits at the centre of supply chains and has access to the largest manufacturing base and construction workforce in the US.
According to energy consultancy Intelatus Global Partners, the development of floating wind energy facilities requires a port that has a base for geotechnical surveys, substructure construction facilities, an integration quay where turbines can be matched with substructures, wet storage for floating turbines, a mooring cable base and an operations and maintenance facility.
Pier Wind would align with LB’s Zero Emissions Energy Resilient Operations programme, which aims to achieve zero emissions in cargo handling by 2030, and from drayage trucks by 2035.
It would also be in line with the state’s energy strategy, which aims for 90% of California’s energy to be derived from clean sources by 2035. Mr Cordero said Pier Wind “holds the key” to the state target of generating 25 gigawatts of power from offshore wind production by 2045.
Gene Seroka, his counterpart at the port of LA, appears more concerned with cargo flows, how to make the port more attractive and improve supply chains. At the TPM23 conference last week, he told delegates settling the labour contract dispute would not be enough to bring back lost traffic.
California needs to be more business-friendly, he argued, pointing to more stringent clean-air rules for trucks, the AB5 legislation on the classification of contractor truckers and opposition to warehouse development in some municipalities.
And Mr Cordero did signal that the new focus on offshore wind would not distract Long Beach from finding measures to improve efficiency and ease cargo flows, using the $1.5bn Pier B project to boost rail capacity, set to break ground next year, as an example. The port authority also stressed that Pier Wind would not impact other port operations.
As it stands, the road to offshore wind generation on the west coast is going to be a long one. To date, there are no purpose-built port facilities on the west coast to support offshore wind farms. Moreover, several observers have pointed out that critical elements, such as US-flagged installation vessels, do not exist. Clean energy may be the future, but it is not the immediate future.