A Simple Solution To The Complex Problem Of Offshore Wind Costs?

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Offshore wind’s benefits are clear – stronger, more consistent supply than onshore wind often located near constrained energy demand in large coastal cities. But power prices for offshore wind have remained stubbornly high, leaving regulators and developers alike searching for ways to lower costs any way possible.

Considering the harsh environment turbines operate in, maintenance work can be one of the most complicated aspects of offshore wind. After all, getting workers transferred to a turbine in deep, surging seas isn’t easy.

But if Windcat Workboats is correct, a simple solution to offshore wind’s cost challenge could increase maintenance efficiency and potentially lower operating costs. (Full disclosure – while my trip was sponsored by the Dutch Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it had no involvement in the editorial process of this post)

Windcat Workboat offshore wind turbine maintenance
Windcat Workboat offshore wind turbine maintenance photo via Windcat Workboats

A Simple Solution To Boost Maintenance Efficiency

The Netherlands-based company, which touts itself as “Europe’s leading provider of specialist crew transfer vessels to the offshore wind power industry,” builds and operates a fleet of custom-designed ships to reliably transfer maintenance workers and equipment from shore or construction vessels directly onto turbines.

Windcat’s secret is simple – a strong custom-built hull connected to a rubber fender on the ship’s bow, filled with foam. As the ship approaches a turbine, its engines accelerate, molding the rubber fender around any docking point. While the boat moves up and down with the waves, a stable hinge-like fixed platform is created for workers to move from ship to turbine. Once workers are transferred onto the turbine, the boat ties up, waits for workers to complete their maintenance, and repeats the docking procedure to take them back on board.

Windcat Workboat docked to wind turbine
Windcat Workboat docked to wind turbine photo via Windcat Workboats

Since starting the company in 2002, Windcat has safely transferred 1.1 million maintenance worker visits, using this straightforward approach. Windcat has grown fast from one boat in its first year of operation to a current fleet of 35 vessels, and is now active at offshore wind sites in six countries across Northern Europe for companies like Vestas, Dong Energy, and Siemens.

Lower O&M Costs Key To Competitiveness

So why does something as seemingly obvious as a custom-built boat with stable docking features matter? It’s all about functionality, according to a report issued last year on the offshore wind market’s potential growth.

Offshore Wind Toward 2020 forecast the offshore wind industry would become a €130 billion annual market by 2020, largely on the strength of a 14% reduction in operation and maintenance costs and a 12% increase in capacity factors. Both of these predictions are important to growth, as the report underlined the need to reduce offshore wind energy’s cost as a risk to global development.

The same report also found 28% of an offshore wind project’s lifetime costs come from operations and management, and noted vessels have traditionally been oil and gas industry ships modified for offshore wind use, but vessels tailored to the needs of offshore turbines could reduce total ownership costs – thus pushing down power prices.

That industry niche seems to fit Wildcat well. “We are the only company still building and designing boats just for offshore wind service purpose,” said Willem van der Wel, head of vessel and business development at Windcat. “All other companies take existing boat designs and modify them for service.”

The beneficial equation is clear – getting a greater number of maintenance workers from shore to turbine faster means less downtime and thus, higher capacity. Transfer-by-helicopter has also been an option for maintenance, but requires a complete turbine shutdown, further reducing capacity. “Vestas chose Windcat for servicing because they said more trips were accomplished,” said van der Wel.

Beyond more efficient worker transfers, Windcat’s custom design also affords more efficiency vessel maintenance, according to van der Wel. Workboats are built with direct access to their engine compartments, meaning if an engine needs replacing, it can be swapped out within a few hours as opposed to dry-docking and cutting through the hull as on other vessels, which can take days.

Bullish Outlook For U.S. Additions, Cost Cuts

Even though offshore wind has been concentrated in Northern Europe so far, Windcat is bullish on the prospects for American projects to come online in coming years. The company has formed a partnership with U.S.-based Seacor Marine, which traditionally operates in oil and gas maintenance, to comply with U.S. regulations and be involved in American offshore wind projects from the start.

No one solution is going to immediately drive down the costs of offshore wind, but as we’ve seen with other renewable energy technologies, a comprehensive approach drives down costs over time. “It’s not really competitive yet, but everyone is trying to drive costs down,” said van der Wel. “Hopefully all these things adding up will make it competitive in the end.”

Check out the below video to see Windcat Workboats in action, starting around the 30-second mark:

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