The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Bigger is not always better when it comes to power
In engineering, it can be tempting to simply make components larger when we want them to do more. The scale of individual wind turbines has steadily increased in the last few decades in response to climbing renewable energy demand and unrelenting pressure to maintain projects’ profitability by keeping the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) down.
In offshore wind, turbine manufacturers have responded to this challenge by increasing output—rapidly developing newer, larger turbines with greater power density and more complex designs, attempting to streamline their supply chain.
But the industry cannot simply rely on increasingly massive turbines to reduce LCOE. The apparent effectiveness of hyper-powering new wind farms in this way is masking existing inefficiencies in offshore operations and maintenance (O&M), letting the costs of minor faults, energy leakage, scattergun repair strategies and catastrophic breakdowns continue to gnaw away at even the most profitable of assets.
Despite the first offshore wind turbine being installed more than 30 years ago and there now being over 55 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity worldwide, currently just under 30% of UK offshore wind farms are implementing linked-up digital tools across their operations, beyond relatively basic condition monitoring.
With 62% of wind industry stakeholders believing that access to data is the biggest barrier to digital advancement, an interconnected approach to digitalisation holds the key to de-risking new turbine technologies, keeping O&M costs low and unlocking new efficiencies in offshore wind. Owner-operators can avoid the rat race—for the biggest turbine, for the cheapest parts, for the lowest service contract costs—and focus on creating optimised, future-proofed portfolios for decades to come.
Digitalisation, first and foremost, enables condition-based predictive maintenance, monitoring and targeting of minor repairs before they worsen into major faults; an overlooked issue, but accounting for approximately 50% of scheduled O&M costs. Lost energy issues, such as bearing misalignments and blade erosion, can silently hamper turbine efficiency and have significant potential for optimisation.
Detection is all well and good, but in the industry’s prevalent systems, data points collected from monitoring are routinely fragmented into disparate silos, flooding into barely interpretable spreadsheets and inboxes. At its most inefficient, this process relies on manual email communication among maintenance teams, slowing response times even when an issue is routine. At sea, the demanding preparations necessary for offshore workers are even more incompatible with this approach.
Maintenance cases for offshore turbines need to be centralised and managed by joined-up, automated systems. Operators need to be able to look at an actionable, fleet-wide workflow to co-ordinate with servicing teams: what needs fixing next, what needs doing after, how, and by whom. Digital case management platforms enable that sequence to be intricately managed, month after month, year after year.
Digital communication across an offshore wind farm is important, but perhaps even more so across the supply chain itself. The industry must adopt a cooperative approach to data. From optimising turbine design to enabling large collaborative maintenance zones, advances in data analytics can revolutionise the sector over the next decade. But this will be unlocked only through sharing data with trusted partners, instead of letting it sit unused.
Digitalisation will mitigate the impact of soaring costs and supply chain challenges while enhancing productivity. For the offshore wind sector in particular, there are huge savings to be made in optimising marine logistics. Crew hire, offshore cranes, and jack-up vessels, for instance, all come at high costs.
By using digitalisation, owners and operators can rationalise vessel trips and even construct collaborative maintenance zones, where wind farms in close proximity synchronise O&M needs, sharing the cost burden.
Installing digital tools that monitor performance, predict and detect faults and control maintenance implementation — in drivetrain, blades, foundations, towers, and beyond — can maximise power output and reduce Opex, helping to drive down LCOE in a long-term and sustainable fashion.
The offshore wind sector stands also to gain significantly from turbine life extension, involving the timely replacement of specific parts and the tactical depowering of turbines wearing down their internal components too quickly. The greatest savings will only materialise, however, if life extension strategies are established early in asset lifecycles.
By using the latest diagnostics to inform life extension, the right predictive maintenance programme can extend useful asset life by 25%, saving on the monumental costs of whole-turbine replacement.
By implementing coherent digital strategies as early as possible, operators can support life-extension strategies from day one, ensuring that the offshore turbines of today keep performing optimally well into 2050. Asset owners looking to reduce Opex need to consider digital tools as early as the project planning stage, designing their operational processes and supporting digital systems at the same time—not implementing them as an afterthought.
Given the precariousness of the geopolitical and macroeconomic landscape, coupled with rocketing project demand across the world and the effect that this combination is having on supply chains, digitalisation presents offshore wind operators and owners with a chance to pre-emptively empower their operations and increase efficiencies, independent of other industry stakeholders.
This is an exciting but challenging time for the offshore wind industry. Huge demand for projects and a continual drive to lower LCOE is squeezing turbine manufacturers, limiting their ability to scale up and innovate. At the same time, the sector has seen a renewed boost in interest, investment and political support, and is set to expand rapidly in large markets such as the US and Asia.
There is not one cure-all solution to the challenges offshore wind must overcome, but there is great cause for optimism. It is high time that the roll out of digitalisation in offshore assets and fleets is expedited to drive wind’s role in the energy transition. •
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