As momentum builds and North Sea wind-turbine growth accelerates so the pressure for effective safety standards builds. In about two years, the number of turbines in the “North Sea” will have passed the 1,000 mark. By that, I mean machines installed not just in UK waters, but offshore The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and so on.
By the early-2020s, that population may be past the 15,000 mark if current ambitions are realised, with the greatest concentration in UK waters. The larger the number, the greater the need will be for a safety regime that works – preferably pan-North Sea. It needs to cover all construction and maintenance personnel, plus the crews of associated ships and helicopters. However, while I am reasonably convinced that helicopter operators and at least oil&gas-related offshore support vessels will, by and large, operate to existing offshore protocols, I am far less confident that developers will be as rigorous – nor is David Doig, group CEO of the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO), judging by a conversation with him on the subject just a few days ago.
When All-Energy was created in the late-1990s – the first show was staged in early-2000 back-to-back with that year’s World Energy Cities Partnership – the purpose was to create an interface where those driving the then embryonic offshore renewables sector could start learning from the massive experience of North Sea oil&gas.
To some, the very idea was anathema. They clearly wanted to create North Sea wind their way without heeding the many bitter lessons learned during the now 40-year quest for hydrocarbons. Basically, they thought they could get away with doing things on the cheap.
However, as All-Energy has grown in stature, and the list of offshore wind projects built or in gestation lengthens, so these same people appear to be realising that there is much they can learn from Big Oil, not least carrying out surveys, trenching and cable-lay, manufacture and installation of structures and transition pieces, ensuring that the turbine power-heads can withstand the maritime environment, and so on and so forth.
It helps, too, that more and more companies in the oil&gas supply chain are now investing in renewables capabilities. Moreover, they are winning contracts, too.
But where does safety sit in all of this – including, crucially, assuring the competence of those who are engaged in building and repairing windfarms or transporting them offshore using helicopters and a variety of vessels?
The UK’s offshore industry operates among the highest safety competence levels of all, albeit it wasn’t always this way. However, the important thing is that bitter lessons, such as Piper Alpha, have paved the way to today’s system operated by OPITO (Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation), whose work is now internationally recognised.
With adjustments, I believe that the OPITO model should be adopted by the UK renewables industry and that its other North Sea counterparts should similarly plug into the Danish and Dutch standards, or in the case of Germany, which essentially has no offshore oil&gas industry, it should draw inspiration from best practice elsewhere.
There has been dialogue between OPITO and the British Wind Energy Association – recently re-branded Renewables UK. However, as is clear from OPITO’s David Doig, RUK prefers to do its own thing.
I accept that offshore wind is not as dangerous as offshore hydrocarbons production, but they share the same horrible environment. Read back into the history of North Sea oil&gas and you will discover how badly the early explorers underestimated how hostile this stretch of water can be – dangerous to man and destructive of machines unless properly designed, built and maintained.
When Big Oil moved into the North Sea, there was no precedent to learn from, unless you count seafarers and fishermen who have wrested their living from this environment for centuries.
But offshore wind or, indeed, wave and tidal energy harvesters do have a precedent to look to and would do well to heed the lessons learned and the willingness of OPITO to offer to assist. Of course, there will be a price. After all, OPITO has to turn a penny. It is keen to set the standards and develop and approve training programmes.
RUK would do well to take up that offer in a thoroughgoing manner. Not only will it save money in the long run, I believe it will help save lives.
THERE is yet more dithering at the Nigg yard while others grasp the nettle and get on with setting up manufacturing infrastructure to service the massive North Sea offshore wind market that is now fast developing.
The Cromarty Firth energy community has waited and waited and waited for the owners of the yard – notably US group KBR – to get their fingers out and prepare Nigg to participate in the boom that is, without question, going to happen.
And what does KBR do? It dumps the idea of getting involved in wind. Instead, it apparently prefers to do a deal which will see decommissioning of offshore oil&gas structures on at least a portion of the site by Birmingham company DSM Demolition Group.
That, in my opinion, is dumb. With up to 20million tonnes of machines to manufacture and instal out there in north-west European waters, the business opportunity is massive.
Add to that the bonus of an oil&gas new projects “Indian summer” and the opportunities for Nigg would once again seem considerable.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: inquiries are out for windfarm transformer platforms of a size that I had never contemplated – structures with a topsides weight of 10,000 tonnes. That matches the 10,100 tonnes integrated deck constructed for the Piper Bravo oil&gas platform and which was installed in 1991.
Little wonder there are once again calls for Highlands & Islands Enterprise to go ahead with compulsory purchase of the yard and get it into the renewables business forthwith.
Of course, old platforms have to be decommissioned, but if the limit of KBR’s ambition for Nigg is letting the yard to a scrap merchant then it ought to be kicked out.