Boundary Pushers: The true impact of technology on the offshore industry

The more competitively priced offshore wind becomes, the greater the chance of unlocking demand and new markets - and, with that, opportunities in the offshore wind supply chain increase. Reducing capital and operational costs in offshore wind boils down to technological innovation in three core areas: turbines, operations and maintenance (O&M) and the grid.

The more competitively priced offshore wind becomes, the greater the chance of unlocking demand and new markets – and, with that, opportunities in the offshore wind supply chain increase.

Reducing capital and operational costs in offshore wind boils down to technological innovation in three core areas: turbines, operations and maintenance (O&M) and the grid.

Even though increasing turbine capacities squeezes out a few drops in terms of efficiency gains, it does mean fewer, albeit larger, turbines that require installing fewer foundation structures, fewer interconnecting cables, and less servicing and maintenance, achieving both CapEx and OpEx savings.

Around 80% of O&M costs are spent on the logistics of transporting technicians out to sites. As offshore wind farms are built further out - 60, 80, and even 100km from shore - the challenges, risks to safety and costs associated with maintaining these assets increases.

Turbine monitoring and remote diagnostics reduce turbine visits and downtime by scheduling repairs and maintenance outside of periods of highest productivity.

One of the most promising examples of technological disruption in relation to O&M is the use of drones for blade inspections – an approach that interests MHI Vestas. "It would reduce the need for travel by boats and will also reduce the use of cranes and baskets, which are needed for inspecting blades," says MHI Vestas’s Chief Technology Officer Torben Larsen.

According to Jonathan Cole, managing director of Iberdrola’s offshore wind business, grid-related developments are also areas ripe for innovation. This is in terms of transmitting electricity produced by offshore wind farms to shore, and in terms of optimising the amount of offshore wind generated electricity that can be fed into the grid.

"As massive gigawatt-scale projects far from shore are developed using turbines with larger capacities, this requires innovation in transmission equipment. You want to be able to send more power down cables and minimise this infrastructure," says Cole.

Going from 33kV to 66kV reduces inter-array cabling costs significantly. Higher voltage cables open up the possibility of sending more electrons down them, so less cabling is required and losses are reduced.  

Getting more wind generated by offshore wind farms into electricity systems is a key challenge.

"Offshore wind has demonstrated that it can reduce the cost of energy generated from this resource. The more offshore wind there is in the system, the cheaper it will be to decarbonise that system. The challenge is how to integrate higher volumes," says Cole.

Energy storage as an enabling technology to support grid integration will take offshore wind to the next level, according to Larsen.

The versatility of energy storage can support integration of offshore wind in a number of ways. ScottishPower’s plans to more than double the 400MW capacity of the Cruachan pumped hydroelectric plant will capture more energy generated by offshore wind and other intermittent renewables during times of low demand for use during peak demand periods.

Dong Energy is integrating its Burbo Bank offshore wind farm with a 2MW/2MWh lithium ion battery, to provide frequency response, making it the first offshore wind farm equipped to provide these types of grid-balancing services.

Technological innovation in offshore wind has traditionally been about lowering the cost of energy and continues to be a key focus for any disruptive technology or approach.

That said, to convince investors, technological innovation has to be more than just a good idea on a drawing board.

"For us it is important that when we innovate, we design it, prototype it, test it and validate it. When all that has happened in that sequence we are ready to demonstrate it for customers and investors. They are willing to trust us that we’ve done it right and are willing to invest," says Larsen.

Industry players, such as MHI Vestas, recognise the link between innovation and value creation as the industry matures in Europe and seeks out global opportunities.

Creating sustainable value for offshore wind is predicated on stable market growth, which comes from clear policy to provide the industry with a long-term horizon.

By focusing on sustainable value creation, offshore wind can become an indispensable part of the EU energy mix as well as penetrate new markets for expansion. Furthermore, offshore wind revitalises economies. By investing in such major infrastructure projects, supply chains and local economies – especially around ports – also benefit. Creating sustainable value also stems from collaboration and through leveraging assets in a smart way.

There are many such examples occurring across the entire supply chain, whether it be use of ‘big data’ to reduce offshore wind farm design times, to new machines for driving monopiles into seabeds that minimise decibel levels to meet environmental regulations, or the new generation of floating vessels for installing foundation structures and turbines in increasingly deep waters.

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In this nine-part series, Windpower Monthly and MHI Vestas explore how the industry is driving down the cost of offshore wind energy through competition, collaboration and innovation.


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