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Assessing Viability in Offshore Wind

Helicopter operators target the offshore wind power industry as a new revenue stream.

After a slow start due, in part, to a lack of capitalization, leadership and focus, the offshore wind-power industry is coming into its own worldwide. Helicopters are part of this resurgence, shuttling crews and building materials to large wind farms several miles offshore.

Global offshore wind farm capacity is expected to increase 330 percent over the next decade, and “helicopter expenditures for offshore wind farms are projected to [triple],” according to Waypoint Leasing, a global helicopter lessor headquartered in Limerick, Ireland.

In a study released in December, Waypoint identified offshore wind farms as a market that could stimulate the helicopter market.

“Helicopter support for wind power is still in a nascent stage,” said Waypoint. “The research, however, makes us confident that there will be at least 100 aircraft servicing these types of installations by 2021.”

In recent years, large offshore wind farms have sprung up worldwide. Of particular note are ongoing developments in the North Sea, off the east and west coasts of the United Kingdom and off the coasts of Germany, France and Denmark. In 2017, Europe added 560 new offshore wind turbines.

Noteworthy, too, are the several wind farm projects off the U.S. East Coast and elsewhere. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has approved 11 offshore wind farm projects and Turkey confirmed recently that it would invest in offshore wind power.

France, Canada, the U.K., Spain, India, Germany, China and the U.S. are the top wind-energy producers in the world, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

These developments could bode well for helicopter lessors and operators, which look for revenue-enhancing opportunities during the lull in the offshore oil-and-gas business.

“Wind power is still a small market, but it is growing quite strongly,” said Crispin Maunder, executive chairman of Dublin-based Lease Corporation International (LCI), which has a fleet of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. “Turbine efficiencies are improving, making wind energy more attractive from a cost-per-unit basis. The wind power industry will likely triple in size over the next three to six years.”

Ten to 15 percent of LCI’s helicopter fleet could be dedicated to the wind power industry in coming years.Photo courtesy of LCI

Between 10 and 15 percent of LCI’s helicopter fleet could be dedicated primarily to the wind power industry in coming years.

“Much depends on how we grow this sector,” said Maunder.

Forty-five percent of LCI’s rotorcraft fleet is dedicated to emergency medical services (EMS). The oil-and-gas sector accounts for less than 25 percent of LCI’s business.

Some helicopter operators remain cautiously optimistic about the long-term revenue potential of offshore wind power operations.

“Bristow continues to follow this market and work with potential clients to better understand the future needs and evaluate where Bristow can support [wind power],” said Adrian Rose, operations manager for Bristow in Aberdeen, Scotland. “But it is still fairly early in the development of that market in most regions.”

Even with the growing popularity of wind power, there remain challenges for helicopter operators supporting this sector. In some regions there is a need for “advancements in regulations, knowledge and expertise,” Rose said. One is the approval/certification for commercial hoisting operations, particularly with regard to maintenance support work.

Rose also sees a need for more collaboration among operators, particularly in the early phases of wind farm development. Bundled services among clients could reduce the cost for mobilization of aviation services, he said.

Each stakeholder wants a unique solution which drives up cost, Rose said, while their licensing budget requirements for fixed low costs are at odds with isolated helicopter solutions.

“If those stakeholders collaborated and agreed upon a standard approach and shared cost model, that would lower costs associated with transportation services,” Rose said.

Even after the full recovery of offshore oil-and-gas business, helicopter operators must be careful about how they dispatch their assets, whether they’re supporting offshore oil platforms and/or wind farms.

The business and operations plan for the oil-and-gas market does not work for renewables, said CHC Helicopter. Both have different mission and operational profiles, as well as different technical solutions and typically use different aircraft types.

Margins and volumes are not at the same levels operators saw when the offshore oil industry was healthy. Still, both sources of energy have revenue potential for helicopter operators.

“We have to be innovative, agile and flexible in our offerings for renewables and the O&G world,” said Mark Abbey, regional director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at CHC Helicopter, which has major offices in Aberdeen and Stavanger, Norway.

The fact that wind farms are being developed further from shore is a plus for the rotorcraft industry, Abbey said.

“There is a sweet spot [for helicopters] if the wind farm extends beyond 50 nautical miles offshore,” where the service operations vessels (SOVs) are not as effective, he added.

CHC is involved in one wind farm project in the North Sea: Hornsea 1. It will have a capacity of 1,218 mw via 174 turbines. The operator provides aerial support for its customer, Denmark-based Ørsted A/S, a power generation company. The project scope is for construction and five years of maintenance support.

Working with Uni-Fly, CHC will assist in the construction phase as well as the first five years of operations and maintenance of the Hornsea Project One wind farm. Photo courtesy of Ørsted

Hornsea has three separate project phases. Over the next three to eight years, CHC’s ongoing relationship with Ørsted could continue into Hornsea 2 with a planned capacity of 1,386 mw from another 165 turbines, followed by Hornsea 3, which could have a capacity of 2,400 mw and 175 turbines, said CHC.

Beyond Hornsea and overlapping in terms of timing is the Dogger Bank Creyke Beck project off the east coast of Yorkshire in the North Sea, arguably the largest wind farm project in the world. Developed by the Forewind consortium, Dogger Bank will consist of four offshore wind farms. They include Dogger Bank - Creyke Beck A with 200 turbines; Dogger Bank - Creyke Beck B with 200 turbines; Sofia with 120 to 200 turbines; and Dogger Bank - Teesside A with 120 to 200 turbines.

The Hornsea project will extend for many years, and it is highly speculative on what CHC’s role and that of other contractors will be, noted CHC. The development consortiums are different for each phase, the company said.

Despite the general appeal of wind power as a viable and cleaner form of energy, some helicopter operators remain skeptical about their role in this market and question whether there is enough business to justify major investment.

Much depends on geography and location, noted LCI’s Maunder. Some countries, such as Taiwan, do not have easy access to the oil-and-gas market, while other countries are reducing their reliability on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Germany continues to reduce its reliance on nuclear power. Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Okuma, Japan, Germany shut down eight of its 17 reactors and promised to close the rest by 2023. This opens the door for additional onshore and offshore wind farms in Germany.

Growing Interest

Twenty years ago, the offshore wind industry was in its infancy and helicopters were not a factor. Then in 2002, Elsam (now Vattenfall) awarded Danish helicopter operator UNI-FLY a contract for hoist operations to the offshore wind farm Horns Rev 1. UNI-FLY is arguably the first helicopter operator to start hoisting technicians onto wind farms and remains the only Danish helicopter operator to do so, according to its website. To date, UNI-FLY has recorded 50,000 missions to offshore wind sites.

Today, there are several helicopter operators that provide transport, cargo and hoist services for offshore wind farms. Wind power has become big business with major utility companies getting involved.

In recent years, numerous utility and large construction companies have invested heavily in this alternative energy segment. Leonardo and Airbus Helicopters have capitalized on the spike in offshore wind farm developments.

NHV’s H175 will support the construction of what will be Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm.Photo courtesy of NHV

Leonardo is heavily marketing its AW139 and AW169 to the sector.

Airbus Helicopters’ vehicles for offshore wind farm projects include the H215 Super Puma, H175, H145 and H135. Lately, Airbus is touting the broad-based capabilities of the new medium-range H160.

“The H160 can effectively serve both the offshore oil-and-gas and wind power industries,” said Denis Bernitz, head of sales for Western Europe at Airbus Helicopters. “We believe that the offshore wind industry will become the new oil-and-gas market of tomorrow.”

NHV Group in July inked a deal with Siemens Gamesa to provide H175s in support of constructing the Beatrice offshore wind farm in the North Sea. Once operational in 2019, it will be Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm.

Before the dip in the offshore oil business, 1,500 helicopters worldwide supported offshore wind energy, said Bernitz.

U.K.-based Babcock, a large helicopter operator with multiple bases worldwide, is the launch customer for the H160. When it enters service in 2019, the H160 joins the Airbus family between the H145 and H175. Babcock will use the H160 for EMS primarily, but the aircraft can be used for other purposes, according to Airbus. The company also serves the offshore oil and search-and-rescue markets.

Airbus has developed a tool that helps helicopter operators analyze and identify the most efficient logistical concepts for offshore wind operations by various types of helicopters. Maritime transport systems are included in the tool’s calculation to help achieve the most effective collaboration between helicopters and vessels.

“We consider how different-sized helicopters could serve roles at a wind farm, particularly with regard to unscheduled maintenance, general personal transports, emergency medical services and hoisting services,” said Bernitz.

Oliver Freiland, managing partner with Heli-Service International, said convincing the offshore wind industry of the value of helicopters compared to ships is an upwind battle. “Helicopters have the image of being expensive. So we need to work on that,” said Freiland.

Freiland said manufacturers and helicopter groups could help educate the offshore wind industry that rotorcraft are an integral part of a modern wind park logistics concept. A number of parties involved in offshore wind development coming from the shipping industry have a misconception of helicopters.

Using helicopters to access wind farms has increased daily productivity from seven hours to nine, Freiland said. In addition, downtime due to inclement weather has been reduced to five hours by using helicopters, compared to 25 percent for ships.

“Helicopter transport is the fastest way to transfer technicians from shore to the wind turbine, enabling wind park operators to significantly increase the productive working time of their technicians,” Freiland said.

The continued growth, popularity and profitability of the offshore wind industry and the helicopter sector’s participation in it will depend largely on cost: how much it costs to develop and service wind power and how much consumers will pay for wind-power-produced electricity.

At the Global Offshore Wind 2016 conference in Manchester, England, Berlin-based Siemens, a German conglomerate with interests in energy production, committed to lowering the levelized cost of energy (LCoE) for offshore wind power to eight Euro cents per-kilowatt-hour (kwh). The price also includes the costs for grid access to shore.

As of today, 72 percent of this targeted cost has been achieved, claims Siemens. Nearly half of this goal was achieved by technical improvements to wind turbines, installation processes, new grid connection technologies, maintenance strategies and logistics, which include helicopter operations. RWI