A GEOPHYSICAL survey boom is in progress for the North Sea as momentum builds in the still young offshore renewables business.
With multi-gigawatt projects now sanctioned under the third UK offshore wind round, the way is clear for developers to press ahead with the engineering, manufacturing and installation of thousands of large wind turbines, the first of which are set for installation around 2016, not forgetting many thousands of kilometres of subsea power cables.
Fugro Survey is already engaging significantly and UK commercial manager Chris Mott says the company and various other members of the wider Fugro Group are eminently qualified for the opportunity.
Moreover, he believes that, rather than taking survey short cuts, developers should not hesitate to contract Fugro and other members of its peer group because of their extensive and highly relevant offshore oil&gas provenance.
Moreover, the vessels they offer are superbly adapted to the North Sea operating environment and possess the kind of geophysical processing capacity that is required to help assure the successful construction of multibillion-pound windfarms.
However, Mott says that some developers have yet to understand that such vessels really do have the market advantage and are worth the charter price.
“What’s still happening, though, is that the amount of money that it costs to operate these vessels means that, in order for it to be profitable for us, the amount of money that we have to charge is more than a lot of the developers are willing to pay,” he says.
“But this is changing somewhat with UK Round Three. The farms are further offshore and the environment is more hostile and uncertain. It helps that developers are being advised by consultants well experienced in the oil&gas market.”
So is UK Round Three starting to place pressure on developers to secure competent survey capacity – not small boats, but full-size 60-70m ships capable of dealing with anything the North Sea can throw at them?
It appears so, and it helps that large projects are being phased. An advantage is that this approach can lead to longer-term contracts. In one instance, Fugro is negotiating with one particularly large development which will require the services of a vessel every second year through to 2014.
Mott points out that the opportunities coming forward are not confined to just the North Sea as windfarms have already been built in, or are planned for, the Baltic, Mediterranean and Biscay.
However, this is adding to the competition for survey resources and means that developers are tempted by smaller, cheaper boats, not necessarily realising that they lack the muscle to cope with bad weather and lack the sophisticated survey suites and processing capacity of larger ships.
He warns, too, that it is vital to balance fleet capabilities against opportunities – offshore renewables versus oil&gas-related activities.
“At the moment, our geophysical vessels are working in the oil&gas market exclusively, and we have a backlog running into autumn,” says Mott.
“We’re operating four geophysical vessels out of Aberdeen. One is in West Africa doing a deepwater site survey offshore Angola; another is about to depart for the Barents Sea to work there for the summer.
“That leaves just two in the North Sea. One is doing pipeline inspection work for an oil&gas client and the other is carrying out drilling site survey work. We collaborate with other Fugro operating companies around Europe and we’re offering to support renewables and other energy clients not only with the vessels we operate out of Aberdeen, but also those working out of other European countries, bringing the vessel resource to seven.
“We don’t have any idle boats.”
With an Indian summer in prospect for the UK offshore industry, does this add to the market pressures?
“We are looking at the situation carefully. Fugro’s European operating companies have met to look at the renewables market to determine whether it is appropriate and how long it would take to bring in additional resources to market.
“So we are considering expanding to meet the demand. We’re analysing forecasts to see whether we need to tool up.
“That would mean a bigger fleet, but this time with the vessels kitted out with a view to the renewables market rather than adapting oil&gas-type spreads to the task. This should help reduce operating costs.
“We’re looking at all options and consulting with our clientele to provide suitable solutions for the market.”
Mott is in no doubt that, to properly develop their massive windfarms, developers really do need to use the right ships with the correct equipment – systems capable of handling the vast amount of geophysical data collected.
“Fugro is very competent in handling large data sets and extracting from them information that’s required.”
Bearing in mind the example set by seismic survey, is real-time processing of geophysical data also of value?
“It has its part to play, particularly if a developer client is running close to his critical path; he needs the information promptly so that data can inform the next phase of the development process.
“That’s why the vessels that we’re operating are capable of carrying processing and interpretation functions offshore.”