Britain’s busiest container and rail freight port, Felixstowe, part of the newly established Freeport East, handles nearly half of the nation’s container trade and hosts some of the world’s most gigantic vessels among the 2,000-plus ships docking every year.

A constant stream of heavy goods vehicles – 7,000 trucks every day – rumble in and out of the port. Yet, in just 12 years’ time, this diesel-heavy road, train and ship freight hub should be a world-leading decarbonisation beacon with vessels, trucks, transport and port equipment powered by clean electricity and green hydrogen.

On top of removing carbon emissions from operations by alternative fuels, economic benefits from innovation and going green will spread deep into the local community, breathing new life and opportunities into some of the most deprived areas in the region.

Felixstowe’s mission is to be net zero by 2035 with electrification of every operation that can be electrified, with green hydrogen also playing a role.

ScottishPower Renewables (SPR), the company behind the East Anglia offshore wind zone and East Anglia ONE wind farm off Suffolk, is currently carrying out a feasibility study into creating a green hydrogen production facility at the port powered by its planned East Anglia Hub wind farms.

Today, 3% of global emissions are created by the maritime industry, which, so far, remains untouched by international agreements.

A focus will be on how ships could be powered while they are berthed and fuelled as they move around the port.

Behind the clean energy hub is Freeport East, which marks its first anniversary in December 2023. It is rising to the government’s mandate for freeports to act as drivers for decarbonisation and net zero, and as hubs for innovation.

Chief executive Steve Beel described Felixstowe and Harwich ports as the critical “anchors” of the economic development activity to attract inward investment into a 1,000sq km area.

“One of our key initiatives is around the green hydrogen hub. It plays to the kind of organisation we are. We don’t own things – but we’re a facilitator with long term ambitions backed by investment incentives and funding that help to make things happen.

“The hub is about working with people and organisations like SPR looking at producing hydrogen, also about facilitating markets and building collaborations with partners who can move forward together.”

Heavy lift machinery, industrial processes, logistics, transportation, construction and agriculture are primary sectors that could benefit from green hydrogen supply.

Eastern Daily Press: Heavy lift machinery, HGVs, logistics, transportation, construction and the agricultural sector are primary sectors that could benefit from green hydrogen supplyHeavy lift machinery, HGVs, logistics, transportation, construction and the agricultural sector are primary sectors that could benefit from green hydrogen supply (Image: Freeport East)
“It is about proving there is demand so people have the vision of what possibilities there are,” said Steve.

“It is about helping big investors like SPR understand where the demand might be in the local market and sending the message locally that there is a supply of new greener fuels coming on stream.”

Bringing partners into the mission is a key focus. Maersk, a leader in cleaner fuels, recently brought its first vessel fuelled by green e-methanol ships to Felixstowe.

“Our objective is to attract the people and investors to Freeport East who can produce these fuels, which will also strengthen the role of the port as the UK’s centre for global trade,” Steve said.

Freeport East’s declared pledge is to generate 13,500 new jobs, more than £500 million of new investment and a £5.5 billion economic boost in a decade.

It collects business rates locally, and rather than 50% going to the Treasury, Freeport East, which is backed by all the local authorities, can then allocate them to be used on local infrastructure, skills programmes and growth opportunities.

“Freeport East has a key role to drive economic activity,” said Steve. “We have existing strengths and local opportunities – our ports and international connectivity, of course, but also the east coast offshore wind sector, where a significant proportion of the UK’s offshore wind is.

“Our local universities also have great expertise in the fast-growing digital sectors, in AI, in clean energy and world-class research.”

As expertise in hydrogen grows, Freeport East will help local companies export their skills. A trade trip to Istanbul in November saw members of the Freeport East team travel to Turkey at the invitation of a UK Government Trade Mission to investigate opportunities and make Turkish businesses aware of opportunities in Suffolk and Essex.

“We had the chance to engage in discussions with companies in Turkey that are interested in investing in UK sectors where they have great strengths, such as advanced construction and sustainable housing materials,” said Steve.

From Zambia to Felixstowe

Steve Beel was a diplomat in Zambia for five years before leading the new Freeport East. 

His varied career – seven years at Ofgem, expertise in offshore transmission grids and the port sector, and as a consultant for PwC – had a common thread. 

“It has all been about linking infrastructure and economic development,” he said. 

Eastern Daily Press: Freeport East CEO Steve BeelFreeport East CEO Steve Beel (Image: Freeport East)
He left his central London job with Ofgem to live in Zambia, advising the Zambian government on energy, urban development and infrastructure, and working with the then Department for International Development (DFID) as part of the UK government aid programme. 

When Covid hit, Steve’s family were sent back to the UK, while the then development director and deputy high commissioner for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travelled back and forth to support the health and development effort in Zambia. He returned to the UK last year to fit in with his children’s schooling. 

“Zambia was a fantastic place to live and work, but the opportunity at Freeport East was one that brought me back to the UK. It’s a long-term project but one that I believe will deliver real benefits for our local region as well as the wider UK.” 

Read more about the East of England’s energy industry in the latest issue of Insight Energy.