Bridging the energy gap

Environmental | 0 comments

Nov 24, 2016

Global Innovation writer Karen McCandless speaks to offshore wind visionary Phil de Villiers to find out more about the innovation projects the Carbon Trust is initiating in the offshore wind industry.

As associate director of innovation at Carbon Trust, Phil de Villiers has quite a job on his hands: to reduce the cost of offshore wind by at least 10% through the Offshore Wind Accelerator projector. Having joined Carbon Trust to do something more worthwhile, de Villiers is working to convince the industry of the viability of offshore wind through a series of innovative projects that use technology that has often already seen success in other industries Karen McCandless caught up with de Villiers to find out about how these projects are helping achieve his goal.

What is your background and how did you first get involved in the offshore wind and renewable energy industry?

I first became involved in the renewable energy industry in 2006 when I was working for Boston Consulting Group (BCG) as a strategy consultant. I was lucky enough to be staffed on two energy projects. The first was to identify which low carbon technologies the UK should focus on to deliver significant carbon reductions and to create economic growth. Offshore wind and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) were the clear winners. The second project was to help a European oil and gas company determine whether to invest in any alternative energy sectors. We concluded offshore wind would be a good choice, and the company now operates and develops offshore wind farms in UK waters.

What led you to work at the Carbon Trust and what are your responsibilities in your current role?

By 2008 I wasn’t enjoying work as a consultant any more – most of my projects were about cost-cutting and reducing headcount, and I wanted to do something more worthwhile. I was lucky to get a job at Carbon Trust – a fascinating company with a compelling mission (“to accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy”), working closely with industry and government to commercialise low carbon technologies. After a year I was asked to lead the Carbon Trust’s Offshore Wind Accelerator, a project that aims to reduce the cost of offshore wind by at least 10% in time for Round 3.

Tell me about the Offshore Wind Accelerator, why the project was set up, what its continuing goals are and how it is progressing?

The Offshore Wind Accelerator (OWA) is a joint industry project involving Carbon Trust and nine energy companies – DONG Energy, E.ON, Mainstream Renewable Power, RWE Innogy, ScottishPower Renewables, SSE Renewables, Statkraft, Statoil and Vattenfall. It was set up in 2009, just before the Round 3 projects were announced – the large, deeper-water, far-from-shore projects that have the potential to deliver at least 25% of the UK’s electricity needs. The OWA was set up because the offshore wind developers realised that new technologies would be required to make the Round 3 projects economic, and if they worked together, they would all benefit.

The OWA focuses on five research areas, including the foundations that fix the wind turbines to the sea bed, access systems to allow technicians to transfer from vessels onto the turbine to undertake operations and maintenance, and the study of wake effects to reduce the uncertainty of predicting the yield of wind farms.

What kind of innovation projects are you working on as part of OWA? 

The approach OWA takes to innovation is to identify the critical technology challenges, and then to encourage industry to develop new products to address the challenge. For example, we realised that 70% of the UK’s Round 3 wind farms would be in 30-60 metre water depth. Historically, most offshore wind farms have been in shallower water, where monopiles have been used to support the turbines. But monopiles will not be suitable for larger turbines in deeper water, so we launched an international competition for new designs – rather like the ‘X-prize’. We got more than 100 entries from around the world, and we’ve been providing technical and financial support to get the best designs to market.

After a lot of desk-based engineering studies, we were delighted when Mainstream Renewable Power and DONG Energy used one of the four competition winners – the Keystone ‘twisted jacket’- to support a meteorological mast at Hornsea in 2011, 100 kilometre offshore in 30-metre water depth. This was the first structure to be installed for Round 3, and the foundation has the potential to be much cheaper to fabricate than other designs.

Earlier this year, Forewind used Universal Foundation’s Bucket Foundation to support their met mast at Dogger Bank, 150km offshore in 25-metre water depth. The next step will be to demonstrate these foundation designs with a turbine.

We’re also supporting innovators to prove other types of technologies. In the last 12 months, OWA has helped 3E and Babcock to deploy floating LIDAR systems in the Irish Sea next to offshore met masts to prove they can measure wind resource accurately. The correlations have exceeded expectations, and the 3E ‘FLIDAR’ system is now being used by Danish developer DONG Energy.

What technology is being used as part of these projects?

Many of the innovations are technologies that have been successfully used in other industries and transferred to offshore wind applications. For example, Keystone ‘twisted jacket’ has been used in the Gulf of Mexico to support oil and gas structures. The Universal Foundation uses suction buckets, which have been used in the maritime industry to anchor large ships.

Motorsport technology has been applied to operations and maintenance vessels by Nauti-Craft. The designers developed the suspension system used by Mitsubishi to win the Paris Dakar rally. The suspension has been applied to a catamaran so it can travel faster in choppy seas and remain stable in rough weather when it’s next to turbines.

But it isn’t just novel hardware that’s being developed – it’s also software. The Technical University of Denmark has developed pioneering new algorithms to calculate wake effects in a matter of seconds rather than weeks, which allows offshore wind developers to consider a far larger number of wind farm layouts than before to ensure turbines are positioned optimally to maximise yields.

How much support are you getting from industry on these projects and how are they enabling innovation in offshore wind themselves?

The OWA is industry-driven – we have more than 150 technical experts from the nine energy companies regularly attending meetings to review the findings from the research and to decide how it should be taken forward. They provide their commercial requirements to the innovators so that the designers can develop their products to meet the needs of the industry.

The industry is also taking the lead in many of the projects. For example, we are running a project to improve design standards for monopile foundations, which will allow them to support larger turbines. DONG Energy is leading the work because they understand what needs to be changed and how to achieve it. OWA provides a framework for all the energy companies to work together, making it easier for the likes of SSE Renewables and Statoil to work with DONG Energy.

However, to get new turbines and new foundations to market, they need to be demonstrated offshore and to do this, the industry needs to take the lead. The challenge is convincing the industry that there’s a viable long-term portfolio of offshore wind projects in the UK, and that requires the Government to provide certainty through Electricity Market Reform  – setting the right strike prices for the right duration, and committing sufficient funding for many gigawatts of offshore wind.

What kind of investment have you seen from the government and corporates in innovation in offshore wind?

The Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK has been a strong supporter of the OWA, providing one-third of the overall funding. They have also have been providing grant-funding to companies in the supply chain in a separate scheme to develop innovative component technologies. The Scottish Government is also very supportive of offshore wind, not only by providing grant-funding through Scottish Enterprise but also offering more generous support to offshore wind developers using innovative technologies in their wind farms. This should help incentivise the industry to demonstrate new technologies to make them bankable in future commercial projects.

What has led you to believe that offshore wind is critical to bridging the UK’s energy gap?

About 25% of the UK’s electricity generating capacity will be closed in the next few years as ageing dirty coal-fired power stations are retired. This means new capacity has to be built, the main options being gas, coal, hydro, nuclear, onshore wind or offshore wind. Each option involves trade-offs between cost, carbon reductions, the security of supply, and time to build. If the UK Government is serious about tackling climate change, nuclear, gas or coal with carbon capture and storage, and offshore wind are the most viable options.

However, nuclear typically takes more than ten years to build, so will not address the immediate energy gap. Carbon capture and storage is very expensive and there is no regulatory regime to incentivise generators to build capture technology and the infrastructure to transport the CO2 to where it can be stored.

On the other hand, offshore wind projects are under development and have tremendous potential in the UK because of the excellent wind resources and the relatively shallow water in the North Sea and the Irish Sea. Although the costs are currently higher than for onshore wind, they are expected to fall substantially over the next few years as innovations are commercialised, the supply chain develops and becomes more competitive, and the cost of finance falls.

What other interesting and innovative initiatives are you seeing as part of the UK’s drive to move to use more renewable energy? 

I like the Scottish Government’s approach – they’ve set a bold target for renewable electricity, they’re introducing favourable incentives to encourage new technology to be demonstrated in Scotland, and they are working closely with industry to attract inward investment.

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