Time for offshore wind to wake up to full benefits of digitalisation
The following article is a guest post by Jonas Corné, CEO at Greenbyte, a provider of asset management solutions. The article examines digitalisation in the offshore wind sector, the necessity of it and current challenges that hinder using digitalised solutions to advance offshore wind projects.
Despite the global disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, 2020 was a springboard for global offshore wind development. In Europe, the European Commission’s ‘offshore renewable energy strategy’ targeted a 25-fold expansion of its offshore wind capacity by 2050, committing to significant investment in ports, grid connections and the wider supply chain to effectively support the sector’s growth.
However, there is one key area in the EU’s offshore strategy that, despite being crucial to the scaling up of green energy, is noticeably lacking in detail: digitalisation.
Too often, the development and implementation of advanced digital infrastructure and artificial intelligence (AI) has been seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ by the offshore wind sector, which means that some significant advances have gone under the radar. Indeed, AI algorithms are now capable of providing more than just a way to reduce operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, with new technologies able to stabilise central grids and increase electricity dispatch efficiency already available on the market.
In spite of its rapid growth, offshore wind has not managed to keep up with innovation in digital technologies, with many European offshore owners continuing to rely on outdated in-house data management systems.
This lack of understanding around digitalisation’s potential benefits is also reflected at a company level. In a 2019 ORE Catapult survey, 94% of respondents agreed that the offshore wind industry was not extracting the full value of data and digital technologies as effectively as it could. In spite of its rapid growth, offshore wind has not managed to keep up with innovation in digital technologies, with many European offshore owners continuing to rely on outdated in-house data management systems.
Investment in legacy software is better than no digital investment at all, but it leaves offshore wind owners and operators at risk of missing out on the additional benefits which more sophisticated asset management systems can provide, on top of simply minimising O&M costs.
The question is, what is the actual state of play for digitalisation in the offshore wind sector today and what steps do owners and operators need to take to make gains?
Invest in remote asset management platforms
As discussed earlier, reducing O&M costs is not the only benefit of offshore wind digitalisation that needs to be taken into consideration, but it is more pertinent in the offshore sector than other renewables as losses are often considerably higher. Hiring vessels to transport technicians to offshore wind sites and carry out O&M can cost tens of thousands, and that’s without taking into account the revenue lost due to asset downtime.
Operators can avoid unnecessary site visits by capitalising on software platforms that can monitor asset performance remotely and provide accurate data into the performance of individual turbines. Advanced asset management systems can identify when damage occurs and in which turbine, enabling operators to calculate when a site visit is cost-effective. For example, Greenbyte’s Predict system has enabled Dutch utility Eneco to identify major component failures in their very early stages and take advantage of predictive maintenance approaches to minimise more costly ad-hoc O&M activities.
Integrate technology-agnostic software
As the offshore wind market has matured, it has also diversified into new technologies. Diversified portfolios and offshore wind farms developed in chronologically different phases now often contain turbines from multiple original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), each of which provide their own performance monitoring systems unique to their technology. As a result, gathering project or portfolio-wide data into a comparable format to set performance benchmarks can be difficult.
Technology-agnostic performance monitoring platforms which can gather and harmonise performance data into a single comparable format are critical to resolving this, enabling operators to optimise project-wide performance and identify when they are not meeting expected electricity production. By investing in such platforms, offshore wind project owners can also increase their independence from OEMs and hold them accountable for the performance of their turbines.
Enhance data transparency with investors
Demonstrating that offshore wind projects are operating optimally will also play an important role in generating investor confidence and unlocking the additional investment that is required to hit the EU’s targets. And we have consequently seen increased appetite from offshore wind operators for user-friendly asset management software that can provide transparency and improve decision-making.
The same trend can be found amongst investors too, with drivers such as business case uncertainty, price risk and growing complexity necessitating greater access to data. Implementing performance monitoring systems which can identify and mitigate the reason for sub-optimal asset performance – as well as integrate forecasting and electricity price data – can help satisfy this demand and inform investor decision-making. On top of this, greater data transparency can incentivise the performance of on-site contractors, OEM’s and other parties, further raising quality standards to generate investor trust.
Incorporate data from offshore energy support vessels
Another way in which the offshore sector can improve data transparency is through collaboration with offshore energy support vessel operators. Site visits are ultimately unavoidable on any offshore wind project, and CTVs, SOVs and other vessels play an essential role in their O&M. However, many offshore wind owners and operators do not consider vessel data in their asset management and performance monitoring analysis, despite the fact that they remain one of their most important contractors.
With tech-savvy oil and gas majors continuing to enter the market, offshore wind owners cannot afford to overlook the improvements that can be made today and need to step up investment into their digital infrastructure.
Vessel operational and performance data such as fuel consumption and ‘time-on-turbine’ is increasingly required in order to satisfy investors looking to optimise the productivity of projects and minimise their carbon footprint. Data sharing initiatives such as ‘p-plot’ have provided a strong model for improving transparency between support vessel and wind farm owners. While it isn’t yet standard practice to bring all of this data into a single platform, this could yield significant efficiency gains, including reduced fuel costs and transit times for technicians.
As the European Commission rightly pointed out, digital systems should be a key enabler of offshore wind growth. But that recognition needs to be developed and translated into action to ensure that targets can be met, for example by integrating offshore wind into the energy system and improving the sector’s efficiency. With tech-savvy oil and gas majors continuing to enter the market, offshore wind owners cannot afford to overlook the improvements that can be made today and need to step up investment into their digital infrastructure.