Constructing an offshore wind farm
Power Shipping Wind Power

The need for bigger offshore support ships

How do you install an offshore wind installation, almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower at sea? The answer is to hire an offshore wind construction vessel with a deck space the size of a football field and a crane that can lift the weight of 1,000 Teslas.

Unfortunately for the industry, there is a shortage of suitably and equipped vessels. At present, there are only about a dozen such specialist ships available to hire on the market. Each such specialist vessel costs some $300 million and can lift generators the size of containers atop steel towers hundreds of feet tall.

offshore wind farm construction.
Port supplying turbine parts for offshore wind farm construction.

At present, there are 36 wind turbine installation vessels in service worldwide, according to shipbrokers Kennedy Mar in London. But, only a handful that can install the current generation of monopiles. The largest new-build, jack-up installation vessel today is Seajacks Scylla, which entered service in 2016. The jack-up is equipped with a Huisman main crane wrapped around one of its legs with a safe working load of over 1,500 tonnes. Seajacks operates four smaller, other installation jack-ups, and is now one of the largest vessel owners in the sector.

Owners can charge anything from $112,000 to $180,000 a day for their services. That compares with the below $25,000 rate for one very large crude carrier class supertanker.

The market for support vessels is changing

18 nations will have offshore turbines by 2027, compared with seven in 2017, according to industry consultant Wood Mackenzie Ltd.  At present, wind provides less than 1% of the world’s power in 2006, but BNEF estimates that will rise to 24% by 2040.

European power utilities like E.on, Iberola and RWE are investing more than $10 billion this year alone in new offshore generating capacity.  According to BloombergNEF forecasts offshore wind capacity is expected to increase from 22 GW to 154 gigawatts by 2030, as demand for low carbon power increases. In addition, to Europe, new markets for offshore wind are opening up in Chinese, American and South Korean waters.

Bigger is better!

Meanwhile, wind turbine manufacturers such as Siemens Gamesa, Vestas, and General Electric are offering ever-bigger wind turbines and blades. In offshore wind, bigger is better in terms of cutting costs and increasing productivity. For instance, ten years ago a typical wind turbine was 2 MW and today we are seeing an increasing number of turbines at 8 MW or more available. At the same time blade length has grown from, 15 metres to 129 metres today. Despite their huge size, the turbine blades and nacelles are relatively light in weight. The largest turbine now manufactured by Vestas, for instance, weighs “just” 390 tonnes, and its blades are only 35 tonnes each. The challenges arise with the monopolies foundations in which the turbine towers are placed. Such monopolies foundations are giant steel cylinders piled into the seabed, in waters up to 30 metres.

As turbines have got bigger, so have the monopiles foundations also known as monopiles support structures. For instance, the Horns Rev wind farm off the Danish coast, installed in 2002, used monopiles just four metres in diameter and weighing 230 tonnes. More recently, the London Array used monopiles some 6 metres in diameter and weighing some 650 tonnes.

Floating wind a game changer?

In addition, we are seeing a new market for offshore wind, which is likely to have a growing influence on the demands of offshore wind support vessels. That is the arrival of floating wind projects; these are designed for waters greater than 30 metres in depth, so ideal for deep water locations off the coasts of California, Hawaii, Japan and Norway. For instance, floating offshore wind projects would be ideal for the West Coast United States wind speeds and waters with depths up to 1000 metres.

But, they could also be used in shallow waters such as the North Sea, thus replacing traditional solutions. Since such projects can be assembled in port and just toad out to sea for anchoring and connecting to the grid, thus further reducing construction costs.

One of the first pioneering utility-scale floating wind projects is known as the 30 MW Hywind Scotland project owned by Norway’s Equinor. In addition, Equinor is pushing ahead with the 88 MW Hywind Tampen project to power offshore oil and gas rigs off the Norwegian coast. In addition, it is looking at prospects of opening up the Aegean waters of Greece to floating offshore wind projects.

New orders

Offshore wind vessel 'Vole au vent'
Offshore wind vessel ‘Vole au vent’

The owners of support vessels such as Saipem, Fred Olsen, and Jan De Nul Group are facing a problem. The question is how big should future vessels be, to meet industry needs in the coming decades.

Forecasters expect a 700 percent increase in demand for their services in the coming decade, resulting in a global shortage of such specialist vessels by 2030. It is time for operators to order new vessels now.

Already vessel owners are adding to their fleets to meet future demand. For instance, the DEME Group, owned by Belgian engineering company Compagnie d’Entreprises, and Luxembourg-based Jan De Nul Group are both building new vessels.

For instance, the DME Group has ordered the new DP3 Heavy Lift Vessel ‘Orion’; it will have a payload of 30,000 tons, free deck space of 8,000 cubic metres and a crane able to lift 3,000 tons up to 50 metres. In addition, the vessel can take the heaviest monopiles, jackets, wind turbine components and structures in a single shipment. Also, its unmatched combination of high load and lifting capacity, ‘Orion’ can transport and install the next generation of giant multi-megawatt wind turbines. The vessel will be built at COSCO in China and will be delivered in 2019.

Whilst the Jan De Nul Group has ordered its third Offshore Jack-Up Installation Vessel, the Voltaire at COSCO Shipping Heavy Industry in China. With a crane capacity of over 3,000 tonnes, this jack-up vessel will support the renewable energy industry to build the future wind farms at sea. The vessel will be delivered in 2022.

However, despite such orders, industry experts such as Clarkson’s Platou AS, a broker expert in offshore wind charters, forecasts, there could be a shortage of suitable specialist vessels by 2022. This is because of market developments in Europe and the growing interest in offshore wind in Asian and North American markets.

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