BMT Nigel Gee: Bigger Is Better in Wind Farm Support Vessel Market (Interview)
Wind Farm Support Vessels (WFSVs) have increased in size in the last twelve months following the changes to the UK and German codes and regulations which allowed the vessels to be longer than 24-metre load line and to carry more than 12 technicians, and the trend is set to continue, according to Ed Dudson, Technical Director at the Southampton-based BMT Nigel Gee Ltd, a naval architecture and marine engineering design consultancy.
”Up until the middle of 2015, vessels were really restricted by the load line length issue. Vessels had to be less than 24-metre load line, otherwise they became full SOLAS high-speed passenger ships,” Dudson said.
”These regulations were a huge issue, because vessels had to carry less than 12 technicians, and to be under a 24-metre load line. If they fulfilled these requirements they were just cargo ships, but the moment they carried 13 technicians or they were longer than 24-metres load line, they were passenger ships. Over the last twelve months, both Germany and the UK have brought out new codes for certification of these vessels, a new notation for offshore service craft, which now allows these vessels to be longer than 24-metre load line without becoming a full SOLAS passenger vessel.”
The change in regulations has led to a huge increase in the number of WFSVs being delivered with a capacity of over 12 technicians, with everything being built now being around 26 metres in length and designed to carry up to 30 technicians, according to Dudson.
The vessels will continue to grow in size and weight, Dudson said, and will start to approach the maximum impact loads of boat landings on the wind turbines.
”With that in mind, we developed an active fender system which has now been installed on about ten vessels. The system reduces impact loads on boat landings and it has been extremely successful. We see a system like this being integral to the design of larger vessels,” said Dudson.
OW: How have the operators responded to the changing regulations?
Dudson: A lot has changed over the last twelve months. The operators now want vessels that can carry more than 12 technicians on board. Recently, we delivered the Sure Wind vessel, Sure Diamond, the first UK-flagged, 12+12 WFSV certified under the new code. Right now, we are going through the first certification of a German-flagged vessel. The other requirements include increased fuel capacity and increased cargo load.
OW: At the beginning of 2015, 23 out of 62 of your live projects were related to offshore energy. What is the ratio now, and are there any plans to further increase your presence in the offshore wind industry?
Out of the 23 of our offshore energy projects in 2015, 21 were offshore wind-related. The situation changes all the time, but right now we have 25 offshore wind projects and about 34 in total for offshore energy in 2016.
We imagine a further significant increase in demand during 2016 following a very hard winter. We are expecting the demand to increase quite a lot during this year because more tenders are being released for new vessels.
OW: Are these projects strictly related to Europe?
Dudson: At the moment, all of our work is in Europe. We have enquiries from the USA, Taiwan and China, but the only vessels being built at the moment are for European markets.
OW: Who are your biggest clients?
Dudson: Generally we work as a sub-contractor to a shipyard, so our biggest yards we work with at the moment are Strategic Marine in Singapore and Vietnam, and Piriou in Vietnam. The end users of our vessels have been Njord Offshore, Sure Wind Marine, Windcrew Workboats, Opus Marine Offshore, Turbine Transfers, MPI Offshore and many others.
OW: You allow your clients to have their say in the final design of the vessel. Can you give us any specific examples?
Dudson: With regards to the active involvement from clients, it is very dependent on how a particular contract is structured. At the moment, companies like Strategic Marine and Piriou are building vessels on spec, which are then sold during construction or after completion. So, the customers’ involvement is more a case of choosing the colour of the vessel, the arrangement of the vessel, whether they want 12 seats or 24 seats, the number of cabins and so forth; and that is pretty much it. We support the shipyards in making these modifications to the vessels, but the customization is relatively small because these are stock vessels and you are limited in what you can do.
In other projects we have worked directly for operators to design a vessel exactly around their requirements. With Turbine Transfers we developed the 28-metre XSS with excellent sea keeping. The design was worked on very closely with Turbine Transfers to ensure they had the right level of fuel capacity, the speed they wanted, the comfort levels, etc.
OW: How will the development of floating wind affect the future design of WFSVs?
Dudson: We have one vessel working in Japan at the floating offshore wind turbine off Fukushima. The vessel was built in Europe and sent out to Japan.
I don’t think that the type of a turbine foundation itself affects the design of the vessel. The real issue is how far offshore the wind farm is situated. The distance from the mainland to the wind farm is going to drive the whole setup of the construction and maintenance of the wind farm.
You can’t have a situation where crews travel for four hours to get to the wind farm. There is no doubt these bigger wind farms which are further offshore will have to have some form of offshore accommodation. But even if there is an accommodation platform installed or a floating accommodation vessel deployed, there is still a necessity to ferry people from the mainland to the wind farm. There is a big question whether W2W vessels really work when you are trying to transfer just a small number of people to each turbine.
OW: The developers of floating offshore wind farms will inevitably choose locations with highest wind outputs. How will that affect the design?
Dudson: At the moment, the vessels’ ability to service or construct a wind farm is limited by wave height. The rougher it is, the harder it will be to approach the turbines. I suspect there will be an optimum level of sufficient wind, but still reasonable enough to safely get crews to the wind farms.
OW: Within the offshore wind industry, you are primarily designing wind farm support vessels. Have you considered diversifying your portfolio within the ow industry, for example with wind farm installation vessels?
Dudson: Wind farm installation vessels are a little out of our expertise, but there is no doubt that, as requirements change, there will also be a change for some smaller stand-off vessels, not the huge walk-to-work vessels, but perhaps something in the 40 to 50-metre range that we will definitely be looking at.
OW: Deepwater Wind is currently constructing the first offshore wind farm in US waters, the 30MW Block Island OWF off Rhode Island. Also, the 2016 US Offshore Wind Leadership Conference held recently in Boston seems to have given an additional boost to the country’s fledgling industry. How interesting is this market to BMT Nigel Gee?
Dudson: We have another BMT company, BMT Designers and Planners, based in Washington DC. They are actively promoting our designs in the US. Obviously, with things like the Jones Act, vessels aren’t going to be built in Vietnam and delivered to the US. Vessels will be built in the US, and we are looking at a number of shipyards to partner with there. South Boats just had their first vessel launched in the US, and we expect the market there to grow as it has grown in Europe.
OW: Do you have any feedback from BMT Designers and Planners, and are there any projects in the pipeline?
Dudson: We have a few projects in the pipeline but nothing contracted or in build at the moment. The US has a big advantage over Europe because they don’t have to go through a lot of lessons learned by Europe. We see the US market as being far more dynamic than the markets in China, Taiwan or Korea.
OW: Speaking of China, do you have any interest in pursuing this market?
Dudson: We do and we have had a number of discussions with Chinese operators with regards to building wind farm support vessels, but at the moment, it appears that they are trying to find a far less, let’s say, technical solution compared to what has been done in Europe. I am sure this will change, but right now I don’t think there are too many true wind farm support vessels working there. They are using existing infrastructure to operate their wind farms.
OW: Are there any other regions which you find interesting?
Dudson: I think Taiwan is of interest. As it is typical all around the world, the industry is somewhere behind where it said it was going to be three years ago, I think they’ve only got the first met masts installed and operating. We have had a few meetings with local shipyards, as well as potential operators, about building WFSVs and using them, but at the moment, the truth is that the market is not there yet. It will surely come, and the story there is similar to the story in Korea. There will be offshore wind farms, but it is anyone’s guess exactly what date that will be and when the WFSVs will be needed.
OW: Recently you marked your 30th anniversary. What is your plan for the next five years?
Dudson: Our plan throughout our 30 years has been to continually develop and expand our presence into different markets, ensuring we are at the forefront as each market develops. We have invested a lot into R&D for offshore wind, which has been a very valuable market for us.
We initially started with fast ferries, but as the industry was dying off, offshore wind has proven to be an excellent market.
Looking ahead, we will continue to develop new designs to suit the ever-changing markets. In terms of a five-year plan, we intend to increase our diversification so we can keep going when times get harder.
OW: Are you planning to turn your attention more to the offshore wind given the current crisis in the oil and gas industry?
Dudson: Offshore wind has given us a new market to expand into, and right now, our focus is far more on offshore wind than it is on oil and gas. The oil and gas industry is going through an incredible hard time right now, but we are remaining committed to this industry because it is bound to come back. We want to expand our presence in the offshore wind industry principally around offshore support vessels.
Offshore WIND Staff; Photos: BMT Nigel Gee