Market ready for take-off

WORLDWIDE: Operations and maintenance activity is now extending into deeper waters, further from shore, as OEM warranties for several large projects approach their expiry dates.

Harsh environment… Technicians working on jacket foundations at Germany’s Alpha Ventus project
Harsh environment… Technicians working on jacket foundations at Germany’s Alpha Ventus project

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The market for offshore wind operations and maintenance (O&M) services is about to take off. Already valued at around EUR 500 million a year, it is expected to top EUR 1.2 billion a year by the end of the decade as the number of offshore turbines and substations continues to grow.

This is a market set for substantial change, too, especially for offshore wind's leading player, the UK. Around 40% of the 1,200 or so turbines operating in British waters are now approaching the end of the warranties (usually five years) supplied by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Many of these turbines are part of the second round of 2 projects, such as Vattenfall's Vestas-equipped 300MW Thanet wind farm, and Dong Energy's Siemens-powered 172MW Gunfleet Sands, both of which were commissioned in 2010. Generally bigger and more complex, farther from shore and in deeper waters than their predecessors, round 2 projects pose an intriguing mix of opportunity and risk for the independent providers of O&M services.

Offshore project owners have three options at the expiration of an OEM warranty. They can renew the agreement with the turbine supplier, take the O&M activity in-house, or contract it to an independent provider.

In practice, some combination of these elements is generally preferred, though the specialist know-how of the OEMs, together with their sensitivity over intellectual property, makes them difficult to dislodge from the head of the O&M food chain.

At the least, they will probably remain contracted for complex and unscheduled maintenance. The would-be independent providers, the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) looking for a slice of the offshore action, might still find it hard to compete.

Major issues persist

However, as the following pages make clear, there is a great deal more to offshore O&M than monitoring, maintaining and, if necessary, repairing wind turbines. Foundations and cables have proved problematic areas in the past, and while the worst may be behind the offshore sector in terms of pile slippage, the battle against corrosion on and below the waterline is far from won. Cable maintenance and repair remains a major issue for the offshore sector. Cable failures account for 90% of offshore wind insurance claims (70% in terms of costs) and the insurance does not come cheap, accounting for up to one-fifth of total O&M costs.

The need to cut costs is recognised across the industry, but as O&M activity moves farther from shore and into deeper waters that is not going to be easy. It will place particular emphasis on vessels that can transport technicians quickly and comfortably from base to project and that can operate in choppy waters. There is no point in getting personnel quickly to the repair site if they are suffering so badly from seasickness that they are incapable of performing the work.

That is likely to mean higher upfront costs for suitable vessels, but a vessel that can operate in significant wave heights of 2-2.5 metres can be deployed for around 320 days a year in most European waters, against the 200 days a year for a vessel restricted to 1.5-metre significant wave height.

Cutting offshore costs

There are many avenues to explore in the quest to cut offshore O&M costs, but ultimately it depends largely on the reliability of the wind turbines.

Despite the investment and progress that has been made in recent years in the field of preventive maintenance, unscheduled maintenance costs remain significantly higher.

The new generation of big turbines, like the 6MW Siemens unit and the 8MW MHI-Vestas V-164, operating in areas with high wind speeds, should go a long way to cutting the levelised costs of energy for offshore wind. But whether they will have a similar effect on O&M bills remains to be seen.

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