OFFSHORE TURBINE TECHNICIANS: The challenge in moving onshore experience offshore

With a reserved maximum of €18bn for offshore wind development the Dutch Government’s ‘Energie Akkoord’ outlines the instructions and deadlines for the future of this industry in the Netherlands. In the same agreement it states that a cost reduction of 40% should be achieved. Included in this is Operation & Maintenance (O&M) which takes up a large part of the cost of an offshore wind project. A project only really starts paying back for itself when the turbines are starting to generate power, so it is of importance that the turbines are kept running as much as possible. Turbine manufacturers and service providers are therefore continuously looking to improve their O&M concepts.

One of these companies is Siemens Wind Power. During a press meeting at the Falck Safety Services’ Maasvlakte, Rotterdam facility representatives of the Dutch office of Siemens Wind Power explained the development of O&M and the importance of having the right people.

Mr David Molenaar, Director Wind Power at Siemens Netherlands, explained that the O&M sector has developed over the years from a responsive to a pro-active working module and that it is now moving more towards an interactive sector. “Service is more than repair, we have already moved from responding to turbine failure to making predictions on planned maintenance based on statistics from careful monitoring and now we also look more from the client’s perspective, to their needs. We do not just look at the availability, we also look at the value of the electricity.”

There are also efficiency steps taken for the actual O&M work. Performing maintenance or repair tasks on offshore wind farms requires a lot more planning than for onshore turbines. Several criteria need to be taken into consideration when sending out the technicians, such as safety briefings, transition time, and accessibility, to name a few. In the article on accommodation at sea we mention the Service Operation Vessels that Siemens have ordered. But, stresses Mr Molenaar: “We can have the perfect turbines, the perfect project, with the perfect elements, but in the end it is all about having a perfect team.”

Finding the right people

In the Netherlands, Siemens is currently involved with two projects, the nearshore wind farm Westermeerwind along the southern borders of the IJsselmeer and the 600MW Gemini offshore wind farm, currently being developed 80 kilometres North of the Dutch Friesian Islands’ coast. Siemens Wind Power is the main contractor on the projects. The company is responsible for the turnkey delivery of the wind farm and will also be responsible for the operation and maintenance for a 15 year period.

In the next 2 years Siemens is looking to recruit some 100 persons for the O&M work at the two wind farms. For example, for the Gemini project Siemens needs 52 technicians, 3 Site Lead Managers and Site Planners and Stock Keepers. They have received 500 applications since the positions were announced in November. Already 24 persons have been offered a job. Mr Molenaar: “This is a good sign!”  He explains that the success of the recruiting process up to now is due to the fact that Siemens is well known for its high safety standards and also because of the attractiveness of the projects, being the largest near shore and largest offshore project in the Netherlands.

Local knowledge

A recruiting agency will do the first bulk pre selection but Siemens will make the final selection themselves to get a good feeling of whether the selected persons will match. He explains: “If our technicians get stuck on an 80 metre high turbine it is important that they can rely on each other for help.”

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The company will try to recruit as much as possible locally. For example, in case of the Westermeerwind project 100% of the crew is Dutch and a good part are from the local region, coming from local shipyards, port authorities and the fishing boats. Mr Molenaar: “These fishermen know the local waters of the IJsselmeer, they know how ‘haunted’ these waters can be at times.” In the case of Gemini one third have been recruited in the northern provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe. Beside the advantage of local knowledge, recruiting locally also helps in keeping the costs down, reducing expensive travel time.

With regards to the turbine technicians, not all of them have proven experience with offshore turbines, some of them are onshore technicians looking for new challenges offshore. For example with the Westermeerwind project, former air force technicians who previously worked on F16’s have applied for these new technical positions. When asked whether the current problems in the oil and gas industry might lead to transfer of experienced people to offshore wind Mr Molenaar could not confirm either yes or no yet at this relatively early stage. He does acknowledge that the offshore wind industry is gaining more acceptance and respect from the older oil and gas industry.

All recruited persons receive an in-house training of one year, the time it takes generally to learn the specifics for one type of turbine. During that year they will also get acquainted with working offshore to find out whether the work will indeed be suitable for them in practice. With reference to the knowledge needed it does not matter whether the technicians will be working on the nearshore or the offshore wind farm, but, stresses Mr Molenaar, “Working offshore does require a different mentality, it requires a much more physical person and also it is not just a day job where you go home every night as will the technicians working on Westermeerwind. For the offshore projects such as Gemini we need people who are passionate but at the same time realistic and responsible.” For the Gemini project the people who are applying are in general older, mainly over 35 years old while for the Westermeerwind they have people working from as young as 24 years old. This has to do with the distance of the two wind farms. The technicians on Westermeerwind will be able to return to shore every day while the technicians on Gemini will stay at sea for 2 weeks each time, something that might be less attractive for people with young children.

Standardisation of education

When asked whether any of the persons recruited are women he has to admit that up to now 100% are men, adding that it might always be difficult to get more diversity in the team of technicians. In their current team of engineers however, four out of 25 are women, he adds. The company is trying to get young people interested in order to fulfil the requirements for the future wind farms yet to be built. Around 70% of job opportunities in the Dutch offshore wind market will be found in O&M. In another example of working for the future, the company has started a programme with high schools, such as the NHL Leeuwarden and the Noorderpoort College in Delfzijl to work towards a greater standardisation in education.

Siemens also provides in-house training through its Centre of Competence of Engineering. The company works together with 2 of the 3 technical universities, TU Delft and TU Twente, offering 8 to 10 apprenticeships a year. Over the past years they have trained and helped about 50 students to graduate. A third of them are now working with Siemens. “It is a good way to find out whether they fit in.” A good part of the other graduates trained by Siemens are now working in the industry with players such as Van Oord. This creates a confidence base and helps in the co-operation with the other market players, he adds.

Safety first

All of the technicians will, besides the technical training, also undergo the necessary safety and offshore training. These are the same for both wind farms, with the exception that all technicians for the Gemini wind farm will also do the HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training).

Mr Molenaar: “We take safety very seriously. Siemens has a large engineering team and each one of them will have to do the First Aid course. Even if they will never actually be the ones stepping onto a turbine, they will be capable of helping their colleagues that do in case of an injury.”

OW23_single page 12 3In the Netherlands Siemens uses the Maasvlakte training facility of Falck Safety Services. The centre has offered courses to the Basic Safety Training standard outlined by the Global Wind Organisation (GWO) since 2013. This consists of five modules, First aid, Manual handling, Fire awareness, Sea Survival and Working at Heights. In order to obtain this accreditation a new training facility, comprising of 3 outside towers and an indoor training frame was built. Siemens have asked Falck Safety Services to integrate some of their own requirements, mainly to be found in the use of Siemens specific equipment, in their GWO trainings. Since the end of last year the Maasvlakte centre is now officially the first centre to be able to offer this.

But in the end, working offshore requires a certain attitude and it is hard to tell whether everybody will be able to go offshore. Unexpected elements such as claustrophobia, fear of heights and sea sickness can cause trainee offshore technicians to drop out of the programme at any time. Siemens tries to prevent these ‘drop outs’ as much as possible but it will only be able to give the answer in two years time when the current job applicants have completed their training. But a possible drop out is not the only variable element. Mr Molenaar stresses that the industry needs long term commitment from the government. “There should be continuity in building offshore wind farms. When there are too many years between projects there is the risk of loosing the experience and knowledge!” The new Energy Bill seems to provide this for the next few years but time will tell what it will bring after 2023.

Sabine Lankhorst