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Round 3 windfarms could see sharp increase in demand for helicopters

Fri 04 Nov 2016

Round 3 windfarms could see sharp increase in demand for helicopters
As windfarms move further offshore, so demand for helicopters is likely to grow significantly

Far-offshore projects due to be developed in the UK’s Round 3 will be significantly more complex in terms of logistics and are likely to drive demand for new operational solutions making use of helicopters

As offshore windfarms are built further and further from the shore, so transferring personnel to them by vessel becomes more challenging from an operational and economic point of view. Developers planning to build Round 3 windfarms and companies likely to be involved in operations and maintenance know that new solutions will be required and that, inevitably, helicopters will play a much greater role in future. 

As highlighted previously in OWJ, helicopters are increasingly being used in the offshore wind industry in the UK and elsewhere as windfarms are built further from shore. They are already being used on some projects, such as Greater Gabbard and Westermost Rough, and as Dong Energy’s programme manager for Hornsea Project One Duncan Clark recently told OWJ, helicopters could have a role on that project too, given its distance from the shore.

Highlighting growing demand for helicopter services, Vattenfall issued a requirement for a provider of helicopter services for the DanTysk, Sandbank, Horns Rev 1 and Horn Rev 3 offshore windfarms. Tenders were due to be submitted by 20 September, and the firm contract will last for two years. Under the terms of the proposed deal, a €6 million framework agreement will be divided into two lots, with the first covering crew transfers, either on a fixed day or on demand, of up to 12 persons to and from the windfarm. The second lot covers troubleshooting activities including hoisting operations.

Operators are obviously also picking up on the growing demand for helicopters in offshore wind operations, and other companies in the offshore wind supply chain also recognise the growing role that helicopters are likely to play in the industry, one example being Fred Olsen Windcarrier, which has proposed a stand-alone offshore heliport concept that will enable the offshore wind industry to integrate helicopter use into the operations and maintenance on far-from-shore offshore windfarms. As Fred Olsen Windcarrier noted recently, and as also reported by OWJ, unlike the offshore oil and gas sector, the offshore wind industry has until now not had the inbuilt infrastructure to make use of helicopters effectively. However, the company believes this is set to change with the introduction of concepts such as its offshore wind heliport – a landing base fixed to the seabed within the turbine array that forms part of the company’s Windbase concept.

Speaking to OWJ in October, Dujon Goncalves-Collins, director of policy – technologies at RenewableUK, explained that, although helicopters would be “complementary” to other logistics solutions, rather than replacing the use of vessels to transfer personnel to and from and within windfarms, demand for helicopters could increase significantly in the next 10–15 years.

He explained that, currently on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), helicopters support approximately700 megawatts (MW) out of a total of around 5 gigawatts (GW) of operational windfarms in the UK. At the moment, they account for only around 2 per cent of all offshore helicopter round trips in the North Sea portion of the UKCS, by far the greatest use being in the offshore oil and gas industry.

However, he said that, looking ahead, this number could increase significantly. “From the operations supporting Greater Gabbard and Westermost Rough today, we can expect others to be serviced by full-time helicopter contracts by the end of this decade,” he told OWJ. “By 2020, we could expect that 3GW of the planned 10GW of operational windfarms will be supported by helicopters, which could equate to the percentage of round trips rising to 10 per cent.” By 2030, he explained, the figures could increase to 10GW of a total 20GW of operational windfarms and account for around 20 per cent of all round trips in the UK sector of the North Sea.

“Driving down costs is probably the most important economic issue for the offshore wind industry,” said Mr Goncalves-Collins. “Safety is the other overriding issue, and statistically, helicopters have a good track record. For the time being, experience with helicopters has been limited to one or two full-time contracts to provide support in UK waters and some looser, ad hoc arrangements, but developers are already looking at a range of options for new projects and there are already some tenders out there that would see more extensive use of helicopters. At the same time, we know that helicopter operators who are not already active in the industry – including some who are not already active in the offshore oil and gas sector – are showing ever-greater interest in it, and a number have already joined RenewableUK.”

Demand for helicopters is likely to take the form of transfer operations, moving windfarm technicians from the shore to a windfarm, a range of operations within far-offshore windfarms and hoisting operations for personnel once they are in a windfarm. For obvious reasons, crew transfer operations are likely to use larger aircraft, but smaller units are better suited to in-farm operations such as hoisting. Mr Goncalves-Collins said that, although helicopter operations are new to many companies in the offshore wind industry, experience to date suggests they are dedicating sufficient resources and expertise to the issue and that consultants are being made use of where necessary.

He cited the example of the Greater Gabbard offshore windfarm, which is jointly owned by SSE and RWE, and operated by SSE from its Lowestoft operations and maintenance base. The windfarm lies approximately 26km from the coast of Suffolk, and helicopters are used to complement conventional crew transfer vessels. He explained that the operation was set up in partnership with the helicopter operator (Babcock International Mission Critical Services) and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority. “Much was learned from the oil and gas sector’s advice, experience and training,” he noted, although due to differences in the nature of the operations, some ‘out of the box’ problem solving had to be employed to ensure the finalised operations were signed off as being safe and effective. The lessons from the setup and the operations have been shared with RenewableUK during the development of the Offshore Renewables Aviation Guidance (ORAG) document, which was unveiled at Global Offshore Wind 2016.

Helicopter operations have been used for many years in the offshore oil and gas industry, but considerations around their use are less well understood in the renewables market, hence the need for guidance that has been produced recently by the Offshore Aviation Renewables Forum (ORAF). As previously highlighted by OWJ, ORAF and RenewableUK have been addressing the issue of growing use of helicopters for some time. They have interacted with their counterparts in the offshore oil and gas industry and are working to evolve offshore wind industry aviation operational requirements covering issues such as hoisting, winching, passenger transport, rapid response and variations in day/night operations. The overall aim of the work they have been doing is to reduce risk and establish a culture of transparency and knowledge sharing.

Helicopter operations to large offshore structures are likely to be similar to those within the oil and gas industry. Specialist operations, such as helicopter hoist, that also support the transfer of personnel and equipment are likely to be very different, says RenewableUK, noting that the expected growth in helicopter operations within the renewable energy sector should build on current offshore experience but start to define and align specific good practises that reflect the risk profile of the offshore wind industry in the UK. “If windfarm developers do not own and operate their own air assets, duty holder control and risk mitigation measures will be based on contractual and quality control systems. Duty holder aviation safety control measures should be implemented throughout the procurement and delivery process. Contractor pre-selection, based on safety management and performance, should occur before contract award, and contracts should allow for audit and quality assessments. Day-to-day operations should be monitored and controlled by duty holder representatives, and regular safety and quality audits should be conducted by specialists,” the ORAG document states.

ORAG was produced by a steering group of RenewableUK members with expertise in offshore aviation operations, offshore health and safety and risk management, offshore development and offshore operations, in consultation with regulators, air operators and offshore renewable developers, operators and wind turbine OEMs. It is intended as industry good practice and guidance and an indicator to organisations of the documents and procedures that should be considered when planning to incorporate helicopters into offshore wind logistics concepts.

The guidelines were written primarily from and for the perspective of organisations having primary responsibilities for and control over projects in the UK. During the planning, design and construction phases, these organisations are most likely to be the client, developer or principal contractor. During operations and maintenance, they are most likely to be the owner or operator.

ORAG notes that, whether a developer intends to use aviation or not, other airspace users from oil and gas to search and rescue may affect layout and operations. “As developments move further offshore, the use of aviation is expected to increase, and aviation must be considered integral to windfarm planning, consenting and implementation,” it says.

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