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Perspective 02-06-2021

7 min read

Offshore synergy – combining oil & gas experience with grid technology leadership for sustainable energy

In this Perspective, Adrian Timbus invites wind power experts and energy transition leaders to share their perspectives on how the offshore wind sector is evolving. Rajnish Sharma, Vice President of Renewable Projects at Equinor, sets out how the Norwegian company is helping to bring down costs in the offshore wind sector by applying knowledge and transferring technologies from its oil and gas business, including drones that assess wind farm blades and autonomous inspection vehicles that can operate both on subsea and above sea levels. Alfredo Parres, Head of Renewables at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, explains how HVDC technology is central to connecting wind farms located increasingly far away, and how sharing data and evolving the operation and maintenance practices need to become the norm to help cut costs.

(L) Rajnish Sharma is VP of Renewable Projects at Equinor, (C) Adrian Timbus is Chairman of the Executive Committee of European Technology and Innovation Platform Wind, and Head of Portfolio at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, (R) Alfredo Parres is Head of Renewables at Hitachi ABB Power Grids
(L) Rajnish Sharma is VP of Renewable Projects at Equinor, (C) Adrian Timbus is Chairman of the Executive Committee of European Technology and Innovation Platform Wind, and Head of Portfolio at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, (R) Alfredo Parres is Head of Renewables at Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Wind power is one of humanity’s biggest hopes for an affordable, carbon-neutral energy future, being one of the preferred technologies – alongside solar – for energy companies to invest in. Although wind power is abundant on land, we must go to the seas and oceans to satisfy our current and future sustainable energy needs. But this is not a task for everyone – it takes courage, expertise, and a pioneering spirit to do it. And not many companies are capable of operating offshore assets, which need to stand up to constant exposure from nature’s harshest elements.

Norway’s Equinor is one of the first oil and gas majors to enter the offshore wind market. The company has decades of experience with building and operating large offshore energy infrastructures, scaling up new technologies, setting standards, and excelling at health and safety.

Since the early days, Hitachi ABB Power Grids has supported wind turbine manufacturers and operators of wind farms with innovative solutions. Together with customers and partners, the wind pioneer is contributing to the transformation of the industry – making wind energy a resilient and reliable power generation technology.

Both companies are planning to take the offshore wind sector to the next level.

WHAT WILL THE 'NEXT LEVEL' LOOK LIKE?

Offshore Synergy Quote: It must be affordable, floating and intelligent

Offshore wind has shown its competitiveness compared with other sustainable energy sources, such as solar and onshore wind, which are easier and cheaper to develop. The segment however needs to use all the available intelligence to further innovate and prove its competitiveness. 

Affordable

“If we look at the development of the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) of offshore wind power, it has declined a lot in the past five to seven years. There are many factors that have contributed to that, but the key ones are technological development, increased competition, learning rate, scale and volume, and cost of finance. We believe that with further technological innovation we will see even lower LCOE towards 2030 and beyond to 2050,” says Rajnish Sharma

Technological development of the wind turbines has been one of the key factors contributing to the reduction of LCOE for offshore wind. Their size grew dramatically in the last years, reaching sizes of 14 MW today. “My personal view is that we will see 20 MW+ turbines by 2030,” continues Rajnish. 

Scaling up power levels makes turbines more efficient and harvests more wind energy.  

“But to optimize costs across the overall system, one needs to also consider the voltage level at which the equipment operates. For 20 MW+ turbines, our studies show that we can get a higher efficiency and a lower cost of the overall system if we use 132 kV voltage levels,” explains Alfredo Parres.

And offshore wind continues to go larger, farther, and deeper. Just a few years back, we were developing 600 to 700 MW wind farms. Now 1.2 GW has become the typical size. The addition of 1.5 to 2 GW wind farms that we see ahead creates constraint-related questions for grid connection capacity.  For these wind farms, we need efficient and resilient transmission solutions such as HVDC operating at extra high voltage levels. 

“But can we go to 525 kV DC? That’s something we would expect to work on together with technology leaders like Hitachi ABB Power Grids,” says Rajnish. 

Floating

Not all seabeds and ocean floors are suitable for developing wind farms on fixed structures, and there is a limited area of seas suitable for wind farms on bottom-fixed structures, which will not fulfill our energy needs. Therefore, we need to look into developing floating wind solutions.

Offshore Synergy Quote: At Equinor, we think the floating wind is going to be a key technology...

“With Hywind Scotland, we have shown that the technology works. In the first two years of its operations, it had the highest capacity factor in the UK with an average of 54 percent, while other offshore wind farms in the UK are at 40 percent. In that last 12 months up to March 2021, we even saw an average of 57 percent. Because of its incipient state and undeveloped supply chain, the cost of floating wind is still higher compared with fixed wind. We have proven however that we can considerably bring the costs down through industrialization and scale. Between our Hywind Demo and Hywind Scotland projects, we managed to reduce capex by 70 percent. Between Hywind Scotland and Hywind Tampen, our ambition is to reduce capex by another 40 percent,” he continues.

Equinor’s Hywind Tampen is the world’s first renewable power for offshore oil and gas
Source: Equinor Equinor’s Hywind Tampen is the world’s first renewable power for offshore oil and gas
Equinor’s Hywind Scotland is the world’s first floating offshore wind farm
Source: Equinor Equinor’s Hywind Scotland is the world’s first floating offshore wind farm

“Scaling these projects from one turbine to five turbines to 11 turbines has brought these cost reductions. Scale is really important to make further cost reductions and to make floating wind more competitive. We expect that in the next ten years it will be very competitive with fixed wind, but scale is needed for that and that comes with industrialization and volume through mass production. We need policymakers and authorities to be clear on their ambitions and to make statements about deploying offshore floating wind. The UK, for example, has done a good thing in proposing a third pot for the Contract for Difference (CfD) dedicated to floating wind technologies, incentivizing developers to develop and mature floating wind solutions. The UK has in fact set a clear target of developing 1 GW of floating offshore wind by 2030. In this way the projects don’t compete with fixed offshore wind farms in the subsidy allocation rounds,” concludes Rajnish. 

“Together with our partners, we analyzed and concluded that floating solutions are very much feasible. We simulated and tested the behaviour of electrical components in both wind turbines and substations. There are no technology barriers to develop and scale up floating solutions,” says Alfredo. “We need to standardize the floating systems in order for the industry to align and contribute to the scaling up,” he continues.

Drones are now being used to inspect wind farm blades
Drones are now being used to inspect wind farm blades
Intelligent data monitoring is becoming key to the operations and maintenance of wind farms
Intelligent data monitoring is becoming key to the operations and maintenance of wind farms
Intelligent

Digitalization brings a lot of intelligence and offers great opportunities to optimize costs, maximize efficiencies, and increase health and safety for the offshore industry. With proper instrumentation of wind farm assets and utilization of modern, mission-critical communication technologies and latest Operations and Maintenance (O&M) software, we enable the ability to operate and diagnose the assets from thousands of kilometers away - from our offices and even from our homes. Reducing the number of trips to the seas not only reduces O&M costs but also health and safety risks of personnel.  

“We are bringing a lot of technical development from our oil and gas business over to offshore wind. Equinor has always been at the forefront of utilizing new technologies and we’ve been working a lot with digitalization. For example, we have been using drones for the inspection of blades. In oil and gas business, we have used autonomous subsea inspection vehicles which we can also utilize for offshore wind,” explains Rajnish.

“The wind industry was very much developed around turbines, and they are really sophisticated and intelligent machines. But the industry can do more with integrating the data across the whole system and using the information from the turbines, the substation, and grid connection, and consume this in a smart way to further reduce operational expenditure.

Production and revenue forecasting is very important for developers before investing, beginning with the design and during the operation of the wind farms. And for accurate forecasting, we need to integrate data across many areas, such as wind data from the site, equipment design data, grid connection details, and of course offtake energy prices. 

Offshore Synergy Quote: Furthermore, energy management and prognostic asset management are..

“Predictive maintenance is really important and a low-hanging fruit. Sharing data and utilizing it for decision making is also very important. We have a lot of data today and we need to exploit it better and utilize it to improve operations and maintenance,” adds Rajnish. 

HOW DO WE ENSURE THAT WE GET TO THE 'NEXT LEVEL'?

Align and commit on all sides.

All of this will simply remain a dream of few pioneers if we don’t actuate all the levers to make it happen. We need good planning across policies, technology and solutions development, as well as risk management activities. 

Offshore Synergy Quote: But more than ever, we need the tight collaboration of...

First and foremost, we need to ensure industry growth through proper policies across all markets in order to confirm the volumes for the supply chain. Visibility and stability of the policies always play an important role to bring an industry to maturity. We also need to agree on the areas of exploitation and ensure we have the proper grid connections to plug in the wind energy.

“The grid is a constraint that needs to be addressed. You can already see in many markets that these constraints are limiting the development of offshore wind. We need modernization of the grid and the surrounding infrastructure to ensure speed of development and reach net-zero targets,” says Rajnish. 

Offshore Synergy Quote: The grid is central to offshore wind conversations...

We need strong infrastructure for the future and with electricity as the backbone of the carbon-neutral world, the grids need to be in good shape,” adds Alfredo.

Innovating and co-creating together

Pushing technological boundaries and developing innovative solutions are also critical to ensure that offshore wind delivers on its promises. Scaling up requires new and more effective materials in order to build lighter but stronger wind turbines. Recyclability is also important. We need to guarantee that turbines jump from the current 85-95% recyclability rate to 100% rate.

As we continue to anchor wind projects on the existing grid infrastructure, we also need to start designing the offshore grid to give us the necessary capacity and flexibility to export the offshore wind energy to all corners of the grid. As HVDC becomes a key technology for offshore grids, interoperability between players and a proper DC grid concept capable of exporting to all countries to support the envisioned growth of offshore wind power are necessary. 

But the story does not stop here. We also need to evolve our energy and grid management solutions to suit the future – more dynamic state – of the system, driven by variable generators and loads. Besides, as we build more and more wind power in the waters around us, we must guarantee that consumers are able to profit from it. Electrification solutions for transportation, industrial, and heating and cooling sectors must therefore be adopted. With these efforts combined, we will achieve our carbon-neutral ambitions in time and at an affordable cost – with electricity as the backbone of the entire energy sector. 

Editor’s note:

This Perspective has been written by leaders in their own words prior to us becoming Hitachi Energy.