Wind farm support vessels: The lifeblood of a wind farm
There are some blunt facts about wind farm support vessels and some of them do not make pleasant reading. In the past four years there have been many wind farm support vessels built, some for existing companies and some for new companies. At the time they were ordered the prospects looked good with the UK Round 3 projects that were announced in January 2010 in sight. For many owners and operators of these new vessels it must now appear that the prospects for full time employment in 201U are not as good as was earlier expected.
The operation & maintenance (O&M) work on the existing Round 2 and 2A wind farms continues, and will remain buoyant until the start of the Round 3 projects providing work for good proportion of the wind farm support vessels.
The huge Round 3 wind farm projects will be built in phases providing long term employment for men and machinery. However, there have been delays in the kick off of Round 3 projects and for some of the wind farm support vessels there will not be enough work in the meantime.
There are many reasons why these projects have not followed on so quickly leaving the industry in the situation in which it finds itself today. It is not surprising that wind farm projects that are many times larger than anything done before take longer to plan. Coupled with this there has been a sustained financial crisis that has hit this sustainable energy program really hard.
Today we have to look hard to see whether there is a light, however small, appearing at the end of this tunnel. We cannot see into the future and we give no guarantee that the projects will start on a particular date, or indeed that they will start at all, but the recent news from Siemens and Green Port Hull that they are doubling their plans for investment in the region, to the amount of £310 million, has lit a green light which is shining at the end of the tunnel.
When the physical work on the Round 3 projects does finally start, when men and machines are required for the construction and installation work, there will not even be enough of these vessels in the water and there may not be enough experienced men to sail on board them.
The importance of WFSVs
The support vessels provide the life blood and the pulse during all of the stages of a wind farm. They are the veins that carry the passengers to keep the wind farm in operation. If these veins are damaged or the blood is sick then the whole infrastructure can fail. Keeping the vessels operating in a safe and efficient manner, while also looking at keeping the costs down, is of great importance to the whole survival of the industry.
The passengers are sometimes reluctant to enthuse over this form of commuting especially when the sea state is described as ‘marginal’, but the work must be done. There is a wide range of vessels available from which the operators may choose, so what are the operators of the support vessels looking for now and in the future that will provide a healthy and strong flow for this life blood?
Offshore WIND asked some owners/ operators of wind farm support vessels what they are feeling at this moment in time what the captains of this industry are concerned about for the current and future prospects of these purpose built support vessels.
Hans Schneider, the COO of A2SEA, the Danish owner of both installation and support vessels, stated that the sector has matured. This aging has changed transfer of personnel in the offshore wind industry; it has now become a real business requiring real shipping companies.
With real shipping companies running these vessels he does not see any future restrictions in the size of the operational fleets that they can manage. It will be a client led growth however, with the client determining whether they remain with a single company that would grow to meet the required size or divide the vessel requirements among several owners.
A2SEA operates a varied fleet including 4 SWATH vessels on bare boat charter, built to carry up to 24 passengers. The company also has full management responsibility for six mono hull vessels for DONG Energy including two vessels for 24 passengers and a catamaran for 12 passengers.
This has become a shipping company operation that is operated by managers with shipping company experience. The larger vessels are classed as passenger vessels and must follow all the regulations for this classification such as being fitted with data recorders for communications, engine instructions, etc. This information is required as evidence should an accident occur. Recording it on the smaller vessels for up to 12 passengers is not compulsory.
The company has already made the move and gained the experience in a field where other companies are still left wondering whether or not to take the step into larger vessels, licensed to carry more than 12 passengers.
It is not only the size of the vessels that determines the different limitations. Mr Schneider makes his differentiation also between the vessels working in the construction and installation phases and those employed for O&M work.
Although they are not always required to use the extra passenger facility their clients have this useful extra option for crew transfer, which is especially useful during the services provided in the early phases of the wind farm’s life. Teams of eight engineers and technicians, for example, can be delivered to carry out installation work on two or three turbines in the same wind farm.
An O&M team is considerably smaller. As far as deck cargo is concerned their vessels have no special demands placed on them by their clients. If the vessel would change from a fast crew transfer vessel to become a freight vessel then either performance would be reduced or costs increased in an attempt to maintain performance.
It is all very well to be able to carry a gearbox on the fore deck, for example, but what do you do with it at the turbine? A sufficiently large crane would still be needed to lift it to the nacelle, so let the crane vessel take whatever is needed to the turbine.
For the wind farms being built further away from the coast in the future we asked Mr Schneider whether his vessels would be employed as they are today.
His response, referring again to the installation phase, was that there are wind farms already using accommodation vessels and he thinks that the use of these units will be increasingly common in the future, with his vessels carrying the teams inter-field from these units to the turbines. Helicopters could well be used later for O&M operations, depending on where the base port is for the wind farm, but the fast 12 passenger vessels will still be in use.
When asked for his opinion on fitting access systems to his vessels, he explains that the maximum sea state which allows the passengers to travel in comfort is already being reached. Fitting extra equipment on board to allow them to transfer from ship to turbine transition piece in heavier weather conditions would not necessarily be worthwhile if the persons concerned were so fatigued by sea sickness that they would be unsafe or unable to work after the transfer. The transfer systems, however, do possess certain advantages and some clients would prefer take advantage of these, so of course if the client requires a unit to be fitted then it could be done.
Their vessels are fitted with fender surveillance systems to monitor the pressure on the fenders when sticking to the transition piece. The information is used to show the specific conditions being available for safe transfers and also to monitor longer-term wear and tear of the fenders. All conditions during a voyage are recorded on an open monitoring system which is used in the daily progress reports. This information has been shown to be useful for many purposes such as crew training for example.
CWind have a completely different approach to wind farm support vessel management. Until recently CWind have only had one type of vessel in their fleet, but earlier this year the new CTruk SWATH vessel was added to their fleet. All their other vessels are the 20T built by CTruk. The 20T is a resin infusion composite construction catamaran vessel with modular topsides which enable the 12 seat passenger area to be lifted off and when the wheel house is moved aft provides a large fore deck area for freight. Because their vessels are mostly similar they are able to offer packages to charter clients with the vessels having the same common pedigree and common capabilities. Peter Jorgensen is the Managing Director of this multi-faceted company that also supplies technicians and engineers for installation and O&M work, as well as offshore training services. Offshore WIND asked him whether they would be ordering a different class of vessel in the future, one perhaps with more than 12 passengers. The answer was perhaps a little cagey but it would appear that they are looking at developing a larger version of the 20T vessel in cooperation with CTruk in the future. So other vessel types are a possibility in the future.
Many of their vessels are in their ‘boat-share’ scheme. These vessels have a part-owner who sails as skipper but has also invested in the boat and shares the costs and profits with CWind. The feature of this concept that they sail as skipper will become a little difficult now as most of these skippers have ordered a second boat.
The ability to convert their vessels into freight carriers within a few hours makes questions about the cargo handling slightly redundant. Safety is obviously their prime objective, but the fact that their vessels are so versatile and when coupled to providing passenger comfort with speed and an economical fuel consumption rate gives their fleet a huge advantage.
In the future CWind may look at possibilities with access systems and sleeping accommodation, the latter would be more appropriate on the proposed larger vessel, but these, and other developments will be client led, possibly when working further out at sea with longer deployments.
Other technical ‘add on’ systems already in their pipeline include developing protocols and processes that will provide CWind with accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive operational data to the benefit of the crew, operator and charterer alike.
Although CWind and CTruk are keen to point out that they are separate entities, this combination of operator and builder is almost unique and has many advantages. For example, operational feedback is more easily available for design improvements.
Turn-key operations, where their client asks for a complete technical services agreement including logistics, are becoming more common now. For example, they can offer a single contract to carry out the turbine maintenance which includes getting the engineers and technicians to the offshore installation. Mr Jorgensen says: “These are exciting times at CWind, as more and more companies are interested in our brand of complete solutions. Increasingly we are deploying our vessels as part of a comprehensive solution that covers construction tasks or O&M packages as well as the crew transport. If a package manager can take on the vessels needed together with the technician teams he requires – that is a ready-made solution.”
MPI Workboats have 14 vessels working, 2 of them built by the PIRIOU Group’s South East Asia Shipyard and 12 by South Boats. The fleet consists of three 15m, four 17m, one 20m, and four 19m South Boats built vessels and, from Vietnam, the two 21.85m vessels which were designed by BMT/Nigel Gee. This is already a large operation, but they do see room for a larger fleet with a possible 20 vessels working in the future.
Safety is again the obvious priority issue but high on their list of other important factors is the comfort of their passengers and the performance of their vessels especially in the harsher environments that will be experienced in the more distant wind farms of the future.
It is the longer travel time in these harsh conditions that they see as being the greatest challenge to come. For the latest generation, the four 19m South Boats vessels that are being delivered, MPI had stated that high performance, reduced fuel consumption and higher levels of passenger comfort were all required criteria.
Leslie Robertson, the General Manager at MPI Workboats, questions how many (extra) days will become available if transfer systems were placed routinely on-board support vessels? When the cost of the unit per day is compared to the day rate of a vessel, would it really make sense?
Whether their clients have an accommodation vessel or other mobile accommodation units on the future large projects further offshore, Ms Robertson sees that the pattern of support vessel usage and crew transfer operation in conjunction with the accommodation at the wind farm still requires formulating. It will not only be vessels for inter-field transfer but also for the long haul trips from the base port to the site that will need direction and purpose before a workable solution is found.
Limits and opportunities for the future
The wind farm support vessels have created a new maritime sector in recent years. There is a trend in the new builds for larger vessels. Not always for larger cargo capacity and rarely for a larger number of passengers, just larger vessels which are more able to ride comfortably in harsher weather conditions. Different designs, such as the SWATH from CTruk, provide a less stressful commute for the technicians and engineers. It remains to be seen whether the use of access systems will be limited to the really large vessels with, for example, 60 passengers.
Are the 12 people sitting behind the crew called passengers or what else can you call them? Today most of these vessels are limited to 12 passengers; will we see a change of the regulations, or definition, in the future brought on by a requirement for more passenger transfers to the wind farms further out to sea?
With the greater distances the passenger comfort becomes more of a necessity rather than just a requirement as also are the on-board facilities available, such as TV and WiFi to relieve the boredom of a 3 hour journey.
Sleeping accommodation for the passengers, however, does not appear to be a major issue. It looks as though it will provide a slight advantage further offshore but primarily for the crew of the support vessel to use.
The smaller vessels, under 17m, will find it difficult to find work in the more distant projects, but remain active in the near shore wind farms.
It is not going to be an easy time in the months to come for some of the companies providing offshore wind farm support. The companies with no alternative options away from the offshore wind industry will struggle.
However their purpose built vessels will remain fit for purpose for a long time, and the experience their owners and crew have gained up to the present time will serve them well in the future, and there is a future with good prospects ahead. The light at the end of this tunnel has been lit.