Written by Molly Isaacs, Energy Economy Analyst at ORE Catapult
The UK has earned a strong global reputation for its expertise in offshore wind operations and maintenance (O&M). Offshore Wind O&M currently supports over 4500 direct jobs, ranging from skilled technicians for maintenance and repair of turbines, to roles in project management, logistics, and support services such as contracting, safety, legal and data analysis. In all such services, knowledge and sector experience are in high demand as other countries invest heavily in building their own offshore wind assets. As the industry expands rapidly both locally and globally, O&M continues to be a growing source of employment and economic input into coastal regions of the UK. The landscape of O&M is also evolving as it expands to meet the demands of next generation offshore wind technology. Important innovation areas lie within the key themes of Safer, Smarter, Greener.
Safer O&M can mean anything from reducing the requirement to send personnel offshore through the development of smart and autonomous digital technology, to improving wellbeing initiatives, or by more direct, traditional HSE practices.
Last year, the UK offshore wind industry conducted ‘Exercise Sancho’, a large-scale multiagency exercise to test industry and emergency service procedures for responding to emergencies offshore. Such emergency exercises are vital for maintaining preparedness, identifying weaknesses, and highlighting opportunities for innovation. To maximize the benefit, it’s essential to broaden discussions beyond key stakeholders, ensuring lessons learned filter down to the many contractors and subcontractors involved in the offshore industry. Ultimately information sharing on this matter is driven by the health and safety culture of the sector. At last month’s annual O&M Conference, panellists encouraged the setting up of working groups with a focus on disseminating lessons learned to enhance safety in the offshore sector. More information on Exercise Sancho, including the post exercise report can be found here.
The broader sector’s health and safety culture was the basis for much of the discussion during the O&M conference Safety panel. An example of dropped objects highlighted the potential for improvements through minor systemic and practical changes. While scaffolders employ tethers to prevent drops, why doesn’t this standard exist in offshore wind O&M? Could underreporting mask the extent of the problem? Do we have enough health and safety professionals working in-field and able to look at how everything is working against the bigger picture? Insight gained by understanding the interacting systems at play in-field, can go a long way to ensuring high standards for health and safety in offshore wind.
There is ongoing excited chatter about all the opportunities for data and digital technology to revolutionise O&M, and for good reason. Great examples include combining machine learning and natural language processing for data-driven approaches to O&M decision making and fault prediction. More companies, such as Windscope and Bitbloom, are entering the market with software as a service (SaaS) to empower operators to make the most of their energy generation assets. Furthermore, we can anticipate the emergence of O&M strategies refined through the integration of condition-based monitoring and machine learning within digital twin platforms. The horizon promises exciting developments in this area, offering real OPEX cost reduction, reduced waste, and logistics refinement – for not just the operators, but the whole supply chain.
However, is it possible there are barriers to realising these benefits within the sector? The perceived risk with ‘black box’ decision making is a potential blocker to the uptake of advanced digital technologies, especially for O&M decisions with high financial implications. Software developers should consider traceability and provide transparent rationale behind the information generated, as this will bolster trust and mitigate resistance to change. Ultimately, technologies need to extract the useable information from the data. Technologies such as AI-driven data-to-text work alongside us to more efficiently perform analytics and observe trends, enabling more powerful insights and decision making.
We are starting to see all the things we could be capable of with enhanced data driven technologies, but what immediate actions should we take? Data is generally not shared at all because data owners often do not fully understand the data itself or the real value it holds to them and to others. Not all generated data has intrinsic IP (Intellectual Property) value to the data owner. Frequently, there is more value in sharing than holding and hording. Some data can be shared entirely safely – to be used by the supply chain to tailor improved support products and services for the data owner. Other data sets can be anonymised as is exemplified by the SPARTA Programme which is managed by ORE Catapult and The Crown Estate to deliver benchmarking of offshore wind farm performance and maintenance data, helping to identify operational improvements as well as cost reduction opportunities.
There can be a distinct gap in the understanding of where the value lies in data that is already held. My message to SMEs, start-ups and owner/operators is to start by targeting this gap and build from there. One thing is for sure, there is only going to be greater volumes of data in the future, so there is real value in seeking to understand your specific data – to enable you to safeguard the confidentiality of data you can’t share and enhance collaborative efforts for data you can share.
As the first generation of wind farms fast approach the end of their design life, the topic of decommissioning, what that will look like, and how to do so sustainably, is increasingly entering discussions. This presents an opportune moment for the industry to embrace and embed circular economy principles for the current and future waves of development. A circular economy is a system which strives to eliminate waste, optimise resource efficiency, and mitigate environmental impact through practices such as maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling.
Offshore wind is in an interesting position as the highest volume of waste comes at the decommissioning phase, in contrast to the chemical and textile industries where waste is generated during output production. This grants the offshore wind sector a brief, albeit rapidly diminishing, window to strategically plan how to manage its end-of-life waste and material flows. ORE Catapult’s Circular Economy in the Offshore Wind Sector (CEWS) Joint Industry Project, is currently mapping material routes to provide a detailed understanding of the UK’s capability and capacity to recycle and reuse materials from all components that make up an offshore wind farm. Work such as this will lay the foundation to build a new circular economy supply chain for the sector and beyond.
We should look now to harness the opportunity to start integrating learnings into the planning and component design phases to bake in a “circular economy by design” approach. This will allow the sector and supply chain to identify challenges that can be turned into business opportunities. This is vital to meet the resource demand of the global expansion of offshore wind. The value of applying circular principles is already evident in the operations and maintenance phase. Fostering innovation, businesses such as Renewable Parts Ltd have applied expertise in refurbishment and remanufacturing to provide a solution to the lack of availability of replacement parts.
Elimination of emissions from vessels that are used for the maintenance of offshore wind farms is another innovation area with significant importance in reducing environmental impact of the energy sector, and beyond. The global maritime sector has been wrapped up in a chicken and egg scenario when it comes to making a move in the choice of clean fuel to power zero emission vessels. The supply chain is not prepared to invest in infrastructure until the demand is there, and the industry isn’t ready to invest in alternative fuelled vessel until the fuelling supply chain is in place. Conversations often get caught up in the challenges, all the things we can’t do, and all the things we could do, but the UK offshore wind sector has answered with all the things we are doing.
Bibby Marine have recently been awarded funding through the Zero Emissions Vessels and Infrastructure competition to build the world’s first zero-emission electric Service Operation Vessel (SOV). Elsewhere, Oasis Marine are developing an offshore charging buoy which allows vessels to recharge at sea using electricity generated by the wind farm. Oasis Marine are project leaders in a consortium that has won funding to install this technology as a first in-use offshore charging station at Vattenfall’s European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC), in Aberdeen. It is fantastic to see these zero emission vessel technologies moving past the concept stage, towards real world deployment. Both the eSOV and offshore charging buoy are important examples of government policy and initiatives, such as the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition, and the Zero Emissions Vessels and Infrastructure funding scheme, succeeding in driving forward innovation and change towards reaching our net-zero goals.
In conclusion, as we race to meet the 2030 offshore wind development targets, it’s crucial to remember that the decisions made today will shape the future of Operations and Maintenance (O&M). There is a huge amount of potential and value in O&M, especially as the rest of the world looks to the UK to show them the way. To fully harness the potential across Safer, Smarter, and Greener O&M, we must exploit these emerging opportunities in innovative technology and techniques and at the same time, proactively consider the impact of these O&M developments during early planning and design phases. Ensuring seamless integration for long-term success.