Academia and industry – an essential combination

It has become clear in the previous interviews with industry players that in certain areas of the offshore wind industry companies are ‘fighting’ over experienced and qualified people to fill their, mainly engineering related, job positions. They are not the only ones though. On an academic level, research departments of universities are also struggling to find people to fill PhD and professorial positions that are so necessary to be able to carry out in-depth research, both in the short and long term, not only in the specific area of offshore wind but renewables in general.

Offshore WIND spoke to Michael Muskulus, Associate Professor, Offshore Wind Turbine Technology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, the largest technical university in Norway, to explain the need for proper academic research. Prof. Muskulus combines his position at the NTNU with those of Vice-Chair of the NOWITECH Scientific Committee and Vice-President of the European Academy of Wind Energy (EAWE).

There has been a general trend in most European countries for a lower interest in technical studies in the past. Fortunately now it does look as if there is a reverse trend coming up. Within the growing interest in technical studies there is an increasing focus on offshore wind. Already several universities and higher education schools in Europe are starting, or have already started, to offer offshore wind related subjects or graduate programmes, either alone or in cooperation with other universities and industry players.

This is also happening from the perspective of research centres. In Norway 2 research centres have been set up for this purpose, the Norwegian Centre for Offshore Wind Energy (NORCOWE), and the Norwegian Research Centre for Offshore Wind Technology (NOWITECH). Up to now there have not been many offshore wind specific master programmes. Prof. Muskulus: “The wind industry is a complex subject. It is difficult to train everybody in all of the many aspects of the industry.” In the recently established European Wind Energy Master (EWEM), for example, we have decided to offer four different specialisations.”

So who are the students? Most of them have a background in engineering, such as coastal and civil marine engineering students who want to know how a turbine works, eg the rotor dynamics, so they choose for the wind industry rather than the oil & gas industry for their master thesis. Another reason is simply that there are students who have a profound interest in green renewable energy.

Such is the case at his own university, they offer more than 20 different master programmes in engineering and have experience throughout the renewables but none of these master programmes are specifically on offshore wind. Coastal and civil marine engineering students can choose whether to follow a career in the oil & gas or in the wind industry. Another master is Energy and Environmental Engineering. Surprisingly a lot of women, around 40%, have chosen offshore engineering.

Hard to compete with the industry

So the interest and possibilities in offshore wind are growing. This might be good news for the industry, explains Prof. Muskulus, however, on an academic research level this is not entirely the case as there are not enough graduates who wish to pursue further scientific education. Most students in offshore engineering studies are able to find employment in the industry straight after graduation.

This is especially true in Norway where the economy is relatively stable and there is a strong offshore industry already in place. A lot of young people studying engineering come from families with connections in the offshore oil & gas industry already, and so they will follow this lead. It is not too difficult to find a job and the job pays much more than the academic salaries. As a consequence Norwegian students will therefore be more reluctant to do a Phd.

This might not always be the case in European countries where the economy is facing hard times. Here graduates might not all find a job straight away, as the industry prefers people with some previous relevant working experience.

However, with the industry growing these experienced specialists are getting scarcer and the industry will then be aiming for the graduates. “As the industry is already starting to compete amongst each other to get the best qualified people it makes it even harder for the university to compete, especially as we do not have an incentive to offer graduates to stay with us. For example, last year we had a post doctorate opening that was advertised internationally; only 3 suitable candidates applied!” “NTNU does try to get students more interested in further research by getting them involved in projects. We have just become partner in a European International Training Network, for example, and we are trying to set up another one as coordinator.”

NTNU is also involved in the Norwegian Offshore Wind Energy Research Infrastructure (NOWERI) project. The project involves building a floating offshore wind turbine in the 100-200kW range to test and measure the individual components, and perform control system studies and validation of computer simulation software (headed by NTNU), and also high quality meteorology measurement equipment that can be moved or used inside an offshore wind farm (headed by University of Bergen).

The project has funding to design and commission the turbine, which will take about 2 years. The research project is also open for industry companies to come in, and also help with funding. The continuation of the project therefore depends on the participants. The location of the floating turbine is not yet decided on but it will most likely be near Trondheim.

Two way road

Both on and offshore wind will stay, Prof. Muskulus expects, but in the next few years the industry will have to prove whether there will be sufficient profit though.
When looking at the goals and plans in the offshore wind industry it is therefore clear that cost reduction is high on the agenda. The future really depends on the political environment and necessary innovation.

For the latter, one way to reach this goal is by looking at reliable and efficient turbines. Prof. Muskulus:This could be done by looking at the structure of the turbines. It is difficult to find the best way to reduce costs though. Cost savings could be made on one part of a turbine, but this might affect other parts leading to higher costs there. So there is need for a good cost model. There is not just one such model, we will probably see a few. And academia has a lot of resources to offer here. The industry does not always realise this.”

But it works both ways; academia should also open up more he admits.

Already the industry and universities are working together but mainly on commercial, applied research projects. The industry has projects that need to fill the basic needs, or in other words, need short-term results that can be implemented in the market as soon as possible. The interest in long-term research is difficult to instil.

While the academic world does realise that there are issues that need to be solved in the short term it is also important to look more in-depth at issues that would benefit the industry in the future.

“There is so much we can do. The industry is still developing and new topics are coming up all the time, but there is a gap between what there is and what we would like to have.” An example of research that could be done is on design methods, he continues. There is a need for advanced tools for the design and analysis of wind turbine output. Currently it takes a lot of effort. Deep water offshore wind is another topic that needs more research.

Funding

Universities need proper funding to perform in-depth research. They do receive government funding, on a national level and sometimes also on a European level. However, although there has been more effort, these are not always sufficient and are very difficult to obtain.

“We need industry participation but this is difficult at the moment and the European Commission knows this. If the results are not coming in quickly enough, or are not the desired results, then it is a real possibility that the project is terminated, and with it the consortium and the funding.”

Beside this, there are also basic things where we need funding for. This means that industrial participation and more commitment from funding agencies is essential.

Sabine Lankhorst

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