Narec's Blyth offshore demo site takes shape

Anemometry hub successfully installed

The deployment of the MPI Adventure off Blyth has provided visible proof that the development of the National Renewable Energy Centre's (Narec) offshore demo site is proceeding apace. SeaRoc completed installation this week of an anemometry hub, 6km offshore of the Northumberland town.

Weather, environmental and wildlife monitoring will commence shortly, with the hub serving as research base. The aim is to understand more about the conditions to be found offshore, reducing the timescales and costs of consenting projects, specifically those planned at larger Round 3 sites.

The installation of the hub represents quite a milestone for the proposed £400m (€500m) project – Narec's largest to date – and one that should prove to be an important catalyst in the development of the next phase of the UK's offshore wind capacity.

But much more has been going on behind the scenes, at Narec's premises on the Blyth quayside. In August, the new blade test facility was completed. Capable of handling the 100m blades being developed for larger offshore turbines, commercial operations at the facility will commence in early-2013. And with the development of the offshore demo site, Narec will become a 'one-stop shop' for offshore wind technology testing and development.

A handful of other UK demo projects are in varying stages of development. But where Blyth will really come into its own is in its capacity to reflect, quite close to shore, the conditions found at more distant North Sea sites. At the Dogger Bank Round 3 zone, for example, 125km off the Yorkshire coast, water depths of 18-63m are to be found. The water depths just 5.6-12km off Blyth are 35-58m.

The Blyth demo site will require all the infrastructure of a Round 3 project and will closely resemble a Round 3 development, albeit on a smaller scale. It will allow foundations and turbine combinations to be tested, in a deep-water, grid-connected, low-cost environment, alongside established on-shore testing and logistics facilities.

This should help to speed up innovation and lower costs accordingly. Indeed, proving the technical and commercial viability of the technology and developing the client / OEM relationships holds the key to the success of the Round 3 projects. And this illustrates one of Narec's key roles; that of bringing parties together, facilitating constructive collaboration, cost savings and risk reduction.

"The OEM is keen to demonstrate the technology but would like to see sales, whereas the client wants to see a proven technology and this is the conundrum that the demo site can solve," says Tony Quinn, Narec's operations director. "One of the primary risks that we're trying to manage is the performance of the technology. We're trying to encourage its up-scaling, which is critical to reducing costs and the offshore demonstration site is key to that."

Blyth also offers an opportunity to demonstrate not just the technology, but also the procurement alliances. "It's one of the first opportunities for the supply chain to prove itself, in deep water" adds Quinn. And this offers spin-off benefits, for operations and maintenance (O&M) and crew transfer methods, for example.

The application for the offshore demo site's development was submitted to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) in March 2012 and Narec hopes to receive the green light by spring 2013. The plans call for a facility of up to 100MW capacity. Around 15 turbines would be installed, arranged in three arrays. For each of the three, a range of foundations types and turbine types are being considered. As for turbine sizes, each array would be no bigger than 33.3 MW, so combinations of four 7MW turbines, five 6MW turbines or six 5MW units would all be feasible.

Narec's independence makes it applicable for a variety of tenants and up to three will be awarded tenancies. The bidding process was open to new market entrants, alongside the longer-established players and the tendering process is well underway. Pre-qualification closed in May 2012, the tender documents were issued in August and bids were received from interested parties in October.

Much interest has been received, from manufacturers and developers. "We've caught the industry as they're forming consortia," says Quinn. "We've pushed the industry together and this helps to share the risks on the development of new technology." The winning bidders should be announced in Q1 2013, after which they will fund the site's build out and connection to the grid. Construction is set to start in 2014 and with a grid connection agreement already secured, the site could be up and running by the end of that year, or by early 2015.