On 13th September 2023, RenewableUK held its second ever Operations and Maintenance (O&M) conference with the aim of covering the broad topic of delivering on the opportunities within O&M,while overcoming challenges.The one-day event focused on feedback and lessons learned from the companies and people that are delivering practical growth in this area of the industry, the ones who are making things happen in this space and are willing to share their experiences. RenewableUK Shadow Board members Johnny Love and Beccie Drake attended the event and Johnny is pleased to report back with his key learnings and insights in this blog.
O&M in the Humber
It is broadly recognised that the UK has built a world leading reputation in the Operations and Maintenance of Offshore Windfarms. As of today, there are an impressive 2,652 wind turbines (totaling 13.6 GW of capacity) operating off our coastline (thank you Wind Energy Statistics - RenewableUK for that stat!). About one third of these turbines are maintained from the Humber (more than any other single region), and so how fitting it was then for the region to again play host for RenewableUK’s O&M Conference.
I was pleased to attend the day along with my Shadow Board colleague Beccie Drake, to hear all about the latest in innovation and developing technologies, plus the techniques and knowhow that has helped the UK and the Humber achieve this position – all attributes that are in high demand across the country, and more widely, as other nations invest heavily in building their own offshore wind assets.
Evidently the growth in O&M has been huge, however further opportunities for UK companies remain in this market. The conference focused on delivering on these opportunities while overcoming challenges.
Forecast for growth
Taking place at the Aura Innovation Centre, on the outskirts of Hull and a stone’s throw from the iconic Humber Bridge, what struck me first as I arrived at the conference was the growth from the previous year. The number of delegates had more than doubled since the 2022 event! Not only that, when asked who had travelled from outside of the region to attend, the majority of the room raised its hand. Over the course of the day, I met visitors from as far as Aberdeen and Pembrokeshire. With offshore wind in Scotland and Wales poised to develop dramatically over the coming years, it stands to reason. Regardless, I was impressed by their commitment and their appetite to see what this day in the Humber had to offer.
The scene for the day was briefly set by Vicky Mant (RenewableUK Commercial Director) and then built upon by Andy MacDonald (Development and Operations Director at ORE Catapult), who touched on the big topics for discussion later in the day. It was clear to me that the audience was engaged and expectant for the day ahead.
Back to O&M then, and today, of the 5000 or so people employed in Offshore wind in the Humber, 3500 have jobs in O&M. This is only forecast to grow, with far and away the largest number of jobs forecast to be O&M roles. Indeed, this is already the case and is most prevalent in regions closest to the highest concentration of installed turbines. The chart below from the Offshore Wind Industry Council’s ‘Offshore Wind Skills Intelligence Report 2023’ (available here: People & Skills | OWIC) was brought up on screen to highlight this. The report demonstrates the number and types of roles the industry will need in its future workforce, and O&M roles are dominant.
The knowledge and expertise developed in the Humber is highly valued. Markets across the world where offshore wind is developing rapidly are looking to the Humber, they see the lessons learned in the region and look to benefit from them. There is plenty more the region needs to do though to stay ahead of the game and to realise its aspiration of being the global centre for O&M.This was explored over the course of the day under the three headings: Safer, Smarter, Greener.
The day’s panel sessions kicked off by discussing safety, as is common in many meetings in this industry. Working safely is the top priority of operators and generally the industry can be considered to have a proactive safety culture.
I was really pleased to hear about the continued work of OREEF, the Offshore Renewable Energy Emergency Response Forum and the expansion of the forum’s membership, which appears to be increasing its areas of focus and ability to disseminate best practice and lessons learned. A notable update was on the earlier publication of the report following Excersise Sancho, a live exercise held to test industry and the emergency services, in response to a significant offshore renewables emergency. The report and accompanying video were released earlier in the year and are available to view on the ORE Catapult hosted OREEF web page (Offshore Renewable Energy Emergency Forum: Exercise Sancho Report – ORE (catapult.org.uk)). Such exercises and OREEF itself are great examples of collaboration in the industry, and in this case it’s a collaboration with potentially global impact as the outcomes are able to support the improvement of emergency response arrangements in the industry in the UK and overseas.
We also heard first-hand about some of the challenges that need to be overcome as the industry and its workforce grows and develops:the importance of mental health when far offshore, getting the basics right,and maintaining and enhancing the safety culture as new people join the industry.
From being safe to being smart, this was a great theme explored over a couple of sessions throughout the day. We heard from the data scientists and engineers innovating with the reams of data that our offshore wind farms produce. This data tells us a great deal, and it turns out we’re only using a tiny fraction of it so far.
I am no data expert myself, so I was very impressed to hear about the potential of Natural Language Processing, and how essentially it allows computers to generate text from data. Remarkably that’s any kind of data, be it a graph or chart, numbers on a spreadsheet or a photograph. We were told how such technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), has the potential to augment many current roles in the industry and to support the workforce to perform their roles better. In my mind it’s certainly foreseeable for example that before too long we’ll see wind turbine technicians performing blade repairs to a specification determined by an AI that’s completed an analysis on just a photo or a scan of a blade section!
However, to enable this future, models need developing and AIs need training. This requires open data in transferable formats, and whilst both ORE Catapult and Ørsted have notably made operational data available, this isn’t commonplace across the industry. Throughout the day the panellists argued that the potential gains from data sharing and collaboration would far outweigh the benefits of keeping data locked.
Beccie Drake, RenewableUK Shadow Board member and Arup Offshore Wind Digital Lead commented :
“On show was a huge amount of passion and expertise, particularly noticeable for me in the area of digitalisation. Several organisations shared new and innovative services around turbine condition monitoring and life extension which will support maintaining the UK's existing fleet, even as we continue to develop and add new capacity. What struck me most was the discussion around AI & ML, and re-emphasis by the Smarter session panellists a view I’ve long held that ‘it is not the case that new digital technology companies will be coming in, taking over existing roles. But, that working together, success will be delivered by models developed, owned and shared by the sector, using digital tools and processes developed by newer entrants alongside the existing supply chain, that augment existing human processes and enable us to work safer, more efficiently, and make smarter data-driven decisions.’”
Beccie has previously spoken about, and shared her views on Smarter approaches within offshore wind across the asset lifecycle, and how we all need to accelerate adoption of smarter digital practices, such as this piece on ‘Without digital, will offshore wind achieve ambitious net zero targets?’.
Whilst offshore wind turbines produce clean electricity, resources are still consumed in their construction, operation and maintenance. There is great potential to reduce the resources and impact associated though, which was explored as the third main topic of the conference, through the lens of circular economy (CE) and future fuels.
CE is an alternative model to a traditional, linear economy. In the latter, resources are consumed to make things which are then disposed of when no longer useful. This depletes finite resources and generates lots of waste. In a CE, use of resources is minimised and waste is cut down. Products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, through repair and refurbishment. At the end of their useful life, materials are kept in the economy, often in new forms, and reused.
As mentioned, there is great opportunity for this in offshore wind. Ørsted’s Parita Gupta shared with the audience how she is working to extend the useful lifetime of their offshore windfarms from the 25 year design life, through to 35 years. There are significant challenges in doing so, notably having confidence that the foundations will remain fit for purpose, but the benefits of an additional 10 years of generation makes good economic sense, and this represents a more sustainable option too. I particularly liked the comments from the local supply chain, who are standing by to meet the needs of operators when it comes to sourcing replacements or refurbishing components. An example was shared of an older turbine part that was refurbished by a local fabricator from a facility just down the road from the operator’s O&M base. The part was refurbished and delivered within weeks, presenting an alternative to ordering a new part from the Original Equipment Manufacturer, for which a longer lead time was forecast. In my view this was good evidence that adopting a CE approach can be both a more economic and sustainable solution.
There was also discussion about future fuels throughout the day. Offshore wind O&M relies heavily on vessels to carry out maintenance works, the vast majority of which use Marine Gas Oil (MGO) as their fuel source. This emits carbon dioxide when burnt and contributes to climate change. However, great strides and loads of innovation is taking place in this space. Credible designs for O&M vessels that are electrically powered or use zero emission fuels like hydrogen now exist, as well as concepts for the required fueling infrastructure. Innovative companies are now very busy collaborating to build these vessels, thanks to support from government departments and industry.
In closing, during the RES sponsored post-event drinks reception, it was great to discuss and dwell with delegates on another high quality, well attended conference held in the Humber. For me, the day helped reinforce the message that there continues to be a growing opportunity for the region when it comes to O&M, and that the lessons learned here over the years can benefit the other O&M hubs that will grow and develop across the UK and internationally in the coming years. Achieving Safer, Smarter and Greener O&M will be a continual journey and there is still lots to overcome. Fortunately, solutions seem to be within our grasp – though they are tightly linked to how well we as an industry collaborate to unlock the long-term benefits.
About the Author
Johnny is a member of RenewableUK’s Shadow Board and has been based in the Humber, aka the ‘Energy Estuary’ most of his life. He was inspired to pursue a career in the renewable energy industry against the backdrop of the Green Port Hull development and the construction of the Siemens Gamesa blade factory in the city. He has held positions on both banks of the Humber and has seen firsthand the development of the offshore wind industry in the area and the transformation this has brought to the region and its people. Formerly based at Grimsby Docks in Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult’s O&M Centre of Excellence delivering innovative projects, Johnny now works as a Senior Project Manager for Offshore Wind Consultants, and along with his colleagues supports the development of new offshore wind farms in the UK and across the world.
About RenewableUK’s Shadow Board
In addition to the main Board, RenewableUK has a Shadow Board to provide a wider range of views on key issues to Main Board members and the Executive Leadership Team. They provide valuable insights and fresh perspectives using their own unique expertise and backgrounds. RenewableUK provides this opportunity to Shadow Board members to help develop their careers.
The Shadow Board members represent companies from every part of the renewable energy sector. It brings expertise across a broad range of areas such as: electrical engineering, project management, law, marketing, asset management, business development, supply chain development, environmental management and public affairs.
The current Shadow Board will come to the end of their tenure at the end of this year. Applications to join the new cohort are currently open. More information on the opportunity may be obtained by contacting: ShadowElections@RenewableUK.com.