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Interview with Mark Pearson: Investing in greener maintenance dredging

2023-08-15 Gary Howard
Despite the uncertainties around decarbonisation strategies, there are still concrete actions dredging operators can take to ensure their fleets are ready for the future, according to UK Dredging General Manager Mark Pearson.

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The fleet renewal and expansion programme at UK Dredging faces a familiar challenge within the maritime industry - as the sector begins to decarbonise, the vessels and equipment we invest in must continue to be competitive and operationally effective and efficient throughout their lifespan.

Many currently active vessels will see  a dramatic change in operations within their lifespans; the UK has a net zero target of 2050 and UK Dredging owner ABP has its own ambitious target of net zero by 2040 under its ‘Ready for Tomorrow’ sustainability strategy. UK Dredging General Manager Mark Pearson has some difficult challenges to navigate in the coming years as the company looks to renew and expand its fleet.

“We have a new water injection dredger coming in near the future, and then in the next four or five years we will be replacing two of the trailing suction hopper dredgers. Then we have a grab dredger that is up for renewal,” said Pearson.

UK Dredging recently ordered a Shoalbuster from Damen Shipyards in a move to expand its fleet to seven vessels. The vessel is a 27 metre multi-purpose workboat, brings versatility to the ABP fleet, can in some instances provide greener operations by burning less fuel, and is  the first water injection vessel to be added to its books, said Pearson.

“You cannot use water injection dredging everywhere” explained Pearson. “But there are plenty of suitable sites in the UK and where you can use it, it’s potentially greener. Rather than sucking up sediment, placing it in a ship’s hold, sailing out to sea and depositing it, you are disturbing the sediment and then using the power of the tide or a gradient to do the carrying work naturally and without burning fuel.”

The new vessel will have an A frame and crane, which will allow UK Dredging to carry out buoy work. Pearson said adding a third workboat to the fleet will also add operational efficiencies: “We can position the workboats around the country and spend less time in transit, waiting for a weather window or steaming around Lands End.”

Forward looking 

Pearson’s career has covered much of the maritime industry, starting on cable ships and progressing as a marine engineer through superintendency roles to ship repair management, before returning to ship management as superintendent to two of the largest ships in the world, ULCCs TI Africa and TI Oceania. 

Other positions covered management of bulk carriers and containerships, before his most recent role in the Middle East as a shipyard director responsible for a division of commercial divers and service engineers. While his career has spanned many vessel types and big brands like Maersk Line, V Ships and OSG, UK Dredging is not Pearson’s first exposure to the dredging sector.

“When I was on the Tyne, my first ship repair project was a dredger called the Hedwin, a fantastic, beautiful vessel with polished brass in the engine room, a real history lesson,” said Pearson.

Pearson believes ABP chose him for the role due to his extensive ship management experience as well as his time spent in ship repair and shipbuilding, knowledge which will be put to use during the ambitious fleet expansion programme.

“UK Dredging as a company has a lot of extremely experienced people with a lot of expertise in maintenance dredging, and that gives me the opportunity to look forward and see where we are going as a company.”

Investment strategy

A core element of Pearson’s future planning is investing in UK Dredging’s fleet. The water injection dredger on order from Damen is the first step. ABP is regulated as a utility company in the UK which comes with strict procurement rules; the Dutch shipbuilder was successful in the extensive tender process and the new vessel will join two Damen-built Multicats already in the UK Dredging fleet, UKD Sealion and UKD Seahorse, which were built in 2003 and 2000, respectively.

“It was clear in the specification and documentation that Damen knows what they are doing with this type of vessel. The 2711 Shoalbuster is a proven design which lowers the investment risk for us,” said Pearson.

The new vessel is best in class for the operations it will be carrying out and has Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO)-ready tier III compliant engines, according to Pearson. The vessel will have the cleanest and most efficient engines in UK Dredging’s fleet, and its power management system will allow for optimal use of the engines and power available, switching engines on and off to meet operational demands.

Critically for the longer term, the diesel-electric propulsion setup allows some flexibility in the future. In the extreme case of a complete change in power source, the diesel engines can be switched out with other generators while maintaining the existing electric motors. The fuel that will power any future generator sets for the UK Dredging fleet is not yet clear. ABP is currently working with consultants to determine its roadmap for fuel selection across its ship newbuilding programmes and other activities.

“At this point it’s difficult to indicate the direction we’re going to go in, whether it’s methanol, hydrogen, ammonia, hybrids, a combination of all of them, or something different. The consultants aren’t only looking at us, they have a view across our operating area and can give that broader look at the situation for infrastructure and fuel availability that we need,” said Pearson.

Environmental impact

While most of UK Dredging’s operations are maintenance dredging projects for ABP’s own ports, around 40% of its work is for third parties. 

“We're constantly looking at ways of minimising our impact on the environment, but it's maintenance dredging, so we're not going deeper. We're basically just removing the silt that keeps coming back and not exposing anything new. We're taking the material out and we're putting it where it would have been deposited anyway if the tidal flow was a little stronger.”

The nature of UK Dredging’s operations also limit its ability to employ beneficial uses of dredged sediments.

“The dredged sediments that we do collect are disposed of as per dredge disposal licences. ABP as a whole is looking to maximise beneficial use opportunities, but with it being maintenance dredging, you’ve got to be realistic about the material you’re collecting and the opportunities to use it.”

“The material we generally collect is silt and you can’t really use it for much else, it’s not ideal for beneficial use. We do look for opportunities where there are other materials such as sand.”

Pearson said UK Dredging also collects plastic waste during the course of operations to protect assets from damage, and that those plastics are returned to port for processing.

Weathering change 

UK Dredging has yet to see any change in sediment levels in its major operations, such as the Humber, due to changing weather patterns in the UK, but Pearson is confident the company is in a position to handle any increase in demand that may arise from climate change.

“We are in the process of increasing the fleet size and capability, and in the future if there is more demand, there is the option to grow again. We also have the opportunity to scale down our external dredging work should ABP need more of our resources.”

Despite being a UK company with near-continent operations, Pearson said UK Dredging has seen minimal impact from Brexit on operations. The focus at UK Dredging and ABP is on continuing to grow and diversify the business and invest in the fleet, said Pearson. As evidenced by the contract with Damen and ongoing membership of CEDA, ABP is still very much in business with its EU-based contractors, suppliers and customers.

“CEDA Membership brings UK Dredging a range of benefits. It's an excellent reference source for new project developments as they arise and it's a valuable forum for bringing together the sector to learn about and develop common industry positions and best practice in areas such as safety skills and sustainability,” said Pearson.

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