On 27 September, in the presence of 250 industrial players in the wind energy sector and a sizeable press delegation, the OWI Lab was inaugurated with the official opening of the climatic test chamber at Churchill Dock in the Port of Antwerp by Flemish Minister-President Kris Peeters.
Naturally, the focal point of the inauguration was the immense climatic test chamber, on which construction work was completed over the past few months. Its exceptional specifications make it unique in Belgium, if not in Europe. Turbine components, like gearboxes, transformers and other large, heavy industrial test objects measuring up to 10 m x 7 m x 8 m in maximum size and with a top weight of no less than 150 tonnes can be tested under extreme temperatures ranging from -60°C to +60°C.
This makes the OWI Lab (or Offshore Wind Infrastructure Application Lab, to give it its full name) and its revolutionary technologies fit to rise to future challenges.
The backdrop for the afternoon opening of what is now the fourth application lab in the portfolio of Sirris, the collective centre for the Belgian technology industry, was the River Scheldt, with the featured presentations given during a boat trip along the watercourse.
In his contribution to the proceedings, Dr. Jos Beurskens from ECN highlighted the need for public testing facilities. He started off by underscoring the economic importance and potential of wind energy, before going on to map out and illustrate the main global trends in the sector. He predicted that wind energy will spread widely in specifically windy geographical areas, such as regions with cold climates or deserts, on remote undeveloped islands and offshore. He then outlined a second trend towards ever larger wind turbines, because support structures account for the lion’s share of their cost and are proportionally less expensive for larger turbines.
This, he said, would raise a series of challenges for research and development in the sector with respect to materials, rotor blades, gearboxes and generators as well as with regard to their suitability for functioning smoothly under extreme weather conditions. He also stressed how essential it was for R&D people in this sector to have their own specific testing infrastructure, as this would enable the validation of models and prototypes and thus foster greater reliability and the swifter development of high-quality products.
He also argued that having publicly accessible testing facilities would not only help the sector progress in leaps and bounds, but also serve as a magnet for economic growth as well as for local and European cooperation. Finally, he underscored the need for optimal coordination at EU level with regard to test facilities and the development of design codes and test standards to foster efficient growth in the sector. In this connection, he described the OWI Lab’s new climatic chamber for testing large components of wind turbines under extreme conditions as a welcome addition to the array of existing EU testing facilities.
The second speaker, Dr. Stefan Lammens from ZF Wind Power Antwerpen NV, focussed on the drive trains of wind turbines, and more specifically their gearboxes. He pointed out that in addition to reducing the weight and consumption of materials (impact on capital expenditure, or CAPEX), it was also extremely important to increase the reliability of these components, as this impacted on both operational expenses (OPEX) and output or energy yield. He went on to say that ZF views the representative testing of its products as a key factor in its endeavour to produce competitive solutions. This entailed carrying over wind turbine performance into dynamic test setups and procedures for materials, subcomponents and complete gearboxes.
Accordingly, ZF has dynamic test benches for bearings as well as for complete gearboxes, but Stefan Lammens went on to add that the ever greater size of turbines is resulting in ambitious test setups that are sometimes difficult to justify for one company acting on its own.
Consequently, ZF welcomes the OWI Lab’s climatic test chamber as a publicly accessible test facility where the performance of gearboxes in hot or cold climates can be simulated. At the same time, Lammens said he could also see an important role for intelligent preventive maintenance, and he added that the OWI Lab might prove to be of help in developing sophisticated monitoring technologies.
In the final presentation, Stefan Milis from the OWI Lab spotlighted the industrially driven nature of this initiative. Belgium is a pioneer in offshore wind energy, he said, and boasts a large number of strong actors throughout the entire wind energy value chain. The OWI Lab would support the innovation needed to develop solutions that he predicted would become increasingly more cost-effective and reliable, and thus do its bit to help create more jobs in this sector in Belgium and boost the overall competitiveness of wind energy.
Thanks to support from the Flemish government, the lab was therefore investing in public measuring and testing facilities. Moreover, he continued, the OWI Lab was a platform for launching industrially driven research projects (both locally and at EU level), one example being the recently approved SBO project Optiwind. Finally, he added that the OWI Lab was also implementing specific innovation projects, like the HighWind project, together with and on behalf of companies active in the wind energy sector.
The lab had already invested in two light detection and ranging systems (LIDARs), including one floating LIDAR, and in offshore measurement and monitoring systems. Such infrastructure was building up new datasets and helping to develop new measurement monitoring technologies, for the time being primarily focussing on dynamic performance and the corrosion of structures, which would in turn pave the way for drive train model validation.
Stefan Milis pointed out that the inauguration of the OWI Lab’s unique climatic test chamber marked the opening of a facility for the representative testing of large, heavy components under extreme climatic conditions (ranging from -60°C to +60°C). He also stressed that there were plenty of ideas and plans for additional infrastructure and research projects and topics. The extensive interest shown by the Flemish wind energy sector was encouraging the OWI Lab to push ahead with its plans for the future.
Visit at -20°C
The boat trip was followed by the official opening by Flemish Minister-President Kris Peeters. In his speech, Peeters identified the energy supply as a key factor determining the strength of the economy, though he also stressed the need for a consistent energy policy. Consequently, he saw the new climatic test chamber as a perfect embodiment of the strategy to pursue.
The OWI Lab would draw on the need to do more work on renewable energy, because energy in the 21st century needs to become greener and cheaper. Accordingly, Flanders had set itself the target of ensuring that 20.5% of its electricity supply consists of green energy by 2020.
Offshore wind energy is one of several possible solutions, he continued, before adding that he still saw ample potential for growth for wind energy in Flanders. Investments like the one in the OWI-Lab were already putting the sector firmly on the map, and companies from Belgium and abroad would come to make use of the lab and its facilities. The lab, Peeters went on, showed how the industry had to be in the future: sustainable and creative, driven by innovation and cooperation between businesses, the government and repositories of knowledge.
The expansion of the wind energy sector was thus one of the spearheads of Flanders’ New Industrial Policy (NIB), he concluded.
The temperature in the climatic chamber was then cooled to -20°C and an ice bar was set up and opened for the guests attending its inauguration. In the course of a guided tour of the lab and climatic chamber, experts from the OWI Lab presented some new monitoring systems for R&D in offshore wind farms off the Belgian coast.
These systems were due to be installed by the end of the year in an offshore wind turbine off the Belgian coast and would serve to gain clearer insights into how the turbine performed out at sea. The experts gave their visitors a number of demonstrations of potential components that would be tested in the climatic test chamber and also explained the logistical concept applied in the testing facility and the provision of a flexible power set for testing systems in the climatic chamber.
The festive afternoon ended with a walking dinner, which provided an additional networking opportunity as well as a chance to put any questions to the experts.
Press release, October 4, 2012; Image: