By Mikko Nikkanen, Head of Maritime, Vaisala
As wind energy continues to play an increasingly important role in future energy systems, developers are turning to offshore locations with inherently stronger, more consistent and more abundant winds to maximize the value of their projects.
Just last year, investment in offshore wind surpassed $300 billion, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, and the global wind energy industry grew by more than 53% from 2019 to 2020. With offshore wind continuing its rapid growth, turbines are growing taller and offshore sites are becoming more expansive in order to generate more energy.
However, as the wind industry expands farther from coastlines, larger turbines and deeper waters make weather intelligence even more critical for operational decision-making. The safety of staff and offshore assets is critical, and without immediate, accurate data across a range of crucial weather parameters, including wind, thunderstorms, lightning and sea conditions, operational safety is at risk and costly delays are likely.
New environments bring new challenges
Offshore environments are challenging to work in. From their hard-to-access, remote locations to the demanding environmental conditions at these locations, the development of offshore wind farms faces several operational challenges that can result in costly delays and safety risk.
In offshore wind farm build-up and maintenance operations, strong winds are not only a safety concern for people, but they are also a major cause of damage to vessels, equipment and turbine components that can cost millions in repairs and downtime. With taller turbines and larger project sites in deeper waters come increasing challenges surrounding the loading, transportation and installation of offshore turbines. While strong winds are vital to the success of offshore operations, they can also significantly impact the ability for wind turbine installation vessels (WTIVs) operations teams to efficiently, cost-effectively and safely install and maintain wind farms. Plus, meteorological and oceanic conditions are significantly less forgiving the farther from shore projects are located.
Complicating those challenges even more, the immense demand for WTIVs to support this growing market significantly limits the availability of these specialized vessels capable of carrying the on-board crane and turbine component parts necessary to build 150-m turbines from the port to the installation site. WTIVs are equipped with legs that reach down to the seafloor to steady the ship and lift it up out of the ocean so it can avoid direct wave impacts and serve as a stable platform during installation. The vessel’s crane then lifts the turbine component parts and installs them in the appropriate position.
Due to the numerous advantages WTIVs bring to offshore wind construction and maintenance, renting a WTIV can cost $20,000 per half-hour (and up to $300,000 per day) — and building a new vessel for this application comes with an enormous $500-million price tag — so minimizing downtime is vital because every second counts.
Since strong winds, destabilizing waves and other inclement meteorological conditions (lightning, precipitation, freezing cold temperatures, and rain, fog, snow or other obscurants) have the potential to endanger crew safety, seriously delay installation operations and prolong construction times, it’s vital to know the wind, wave and other meteorological conditions at any given moment to ensure staff and asset safety.
According to the Global Offshore Wind Health and Safety Organization, 2020 witnessed nearly 750 health and safety incidents at offshore wind farm sites across the world, with nearly 300 of those resulting in employee injury and almost 150 damaging assets. Determining whether it’s safe to have a crane lifting turbine components, crew members installing blades or a helicopter transporting maintenance crews and/or replacement components to the offshore wind farm site relies on accurate measurements of the wind, lightning, waves, visibility and other weather conditions both between the port and the wind farm and at each location.
Offshore wind installations are weather-critical, and the installation process can take several days for each individual turbine. As a result, if the install phase takes longer than initially anticipated, the extra cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars each day is often unsustainable. Again, maximizing safety and minimizing downtime is essential.
Harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions are common in offshore environments, which is why decision-makers need localized meteorological and forecast information to minimize these threats and maximize the value of an offshore project. Fortunately, precautions to minimize damage, downtime and safety risk of workers can be taken by utilizing the latest innovations in advanced weather sensing technologies.
Leveraging advanced weather insights to maximize safety and minimize downtime
Accurate and reliable weather awareness is key to knowing when the weather is right for safe and efficient wind farm installations. Without accurate and reliable weather information from the latest wind lidars, helideck monitoring systems (HMSs), global storm networks and weather sensors, effectively ameliorating the impacts of wind, thunderstorms, sea state and visibility effects to avoid costly delays and increase safety is incredibly difficult.
At sea, the wind can be unpredictable and a lack of local observations creates challenges. Wind lidar remote sensing technology enables the accurate detection of hazardous wind gusts that can impact offshore operations by simultaneously measuring wind speed and direction at multiple heights. Modern lidars are reliable and easy to deploy and position almost anywhere on a vessel, which makes gaining a comprehensive view into how winds are developing on top of the WTIV and at different locations around the site (up to 300 m in the atmosphere, covering the full rotor sweep of even the largest offshore turbines) easier than ever before. In addition, wind lidars are commonly used during craning and mounting operations to help ensure the proper timing for cranes to lift turbine components on offshore location or at loading port. By vertically measuring wind speed and direction to inform transportation movements and ensure employee safety, wind lidars can simplify offshore operations and maximize operational continuity while maintaining overall safety.
When wind lidars combine with the weather sensor technologies integrated into HMSs (a barometer, temperature and humidity probes, a visibility sensor, a ceilometer and a wave measurement radar), an even broader range of meteorological and oceanographic conditions can be monitored. HMSs are generally required according to CAP 437: Standards For Offshore Helicopter Landing Areas to help ensure effective flight planning and safe landings on offshore installations. These systems tend to come equipped with software that includes a real-time data display, reporting tools and critical alarms. With these advanced weather insights, any negative impacts can be quickly quantified, enabling project operators to make more informed decisions during critical weather situations aimed at optimizing operations, minimizing downtime at sea and ensuring the safety of the on-site crew.
A global lightning detection sensor network is able to detect thunderstorms in real time, track their trajectory and intensity, and support hazardous weather warnings — even outside the range of weather radar — to help minimize lightning-related safety concerns, especially during the transport of helicopters and operations crews to and from offshore installation sites. Helicopters are not allowed to fly through thunderstorms, thus it’s better to be fully aware of the direction of a thunderstorm’s movement and lightning forecasts beforehand to avoid safety risks. Additionally, crane lifting operations at higher altitudes attract lightning during thunderstorms, increasing the likelihood of a safety hazard, fire or explosion. Safe and efficient operations depend on accurate lightning detection, and early warnings allow decision-makers to better anticipate a lightning threat before it reaches the offshore site, helping to keep workers safe while reducing the duration of safety shutdowns.
Altogether, advanced weather insights optimize offshore wind farm construction and operations by:
- Alerting onboard decision-makers before sudden winds or thunderstorms hit, allowing time to secure cranes and position vessels for safety.
- Providing helicopter pilot and traffic control accurate weather and sea state information on a 24/7 basis.
- Optimizing the maximum weather window for safe and efficient accessibility, installations and longer-term maintenance operations.
- Increasing crew and asset safety with early warnings.
- Minimizing downtime and delays.
- Making improvements and updating protocols at offshore sites to enhance safety and decrease damage and downtime — saving money in the long run.
For years Vaisala has supplied wind farms and other offshore wind projects with weather awareness solutions that meet ever-evolving industry needs. From the ruggedized WindCube Offshore wind lidar to Vaisala’s Thunderstorm Manager, Global Lightning Detection Network GLD360 and Helideck Monitoring System (HMS), new techniques and technologies are required to uphold safety and performance while minimizing damage, downtime and liability.
Whether the conversation surrounds worker injury/death, crane and turbine damages, halted crane activity, or increased downtime-related delays, severe weather, strong winds and lightning all pose serious risks to WTIVs, helicopters and supporting ports. As the offshore wind industry continues to move into harsher environments with increasingly challenging and unpredictable extreme weather conditions, the ability to accurately monitor the meteorological conditions that impact your daily operations is critical to maximizing both staff and asset safety as well as the value of your offshore project.
Mikko Nikkanen is the head of Maritime at Vaisala, a global leader in weather, environmental and industrial measurements where he brings more than 20 years of global experience in leadership, business development, and solution creation in various industries and application areas.
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