Solving wind power’s challenges with SMEs

A UK research centre is championing SMEs as the solution to any challenges wind or tidal power may throw up

The environmental benefits of offshore renewable energy are well-known: wind and wave/tidal is a readily available and sustainable source of power, and the electricity produced is low in carbon emissions and other pollutants associated with fossil fuels. But while the clean energy arguments are hard to dispute, the jury is still out when it comes the economic viability of offshore electricity production – and the innovation challenges are numerous.

Dr Stephen Wyatt is the strategy and commercialisation director for the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK's flagship technology innovation and research centre for offshore wind, wave and tidal energy.

He is confident that by focusing on research and development, obstacles such as economic feasibility can be overcome: “Technology innovation will ultimately drive down costs,” he says.

ORE Catapult
ORE Catapult's research facilities test the structural viability of offshore renewable technologies such as wind turbine blades

Wyatt and colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Centre in the North East of England have identified key innovation challenges in both offshore wind and wave/tidal. They are now working with a number of companies to find solutions that will ultimately make the sector more financially attractive.

“We are particularly focused on working with SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises],” explains Wyatt. “Being smaller and more agile, they can respond quicker to market opportunities, undertake research and development faster, and be more creative in their thinking.”

The key challenges for the sector identified by ORE Catapult – part of a network of research and innovation centres set up by the UK government – have been categorised into seven areas. These are: blades; drive trains (hydraulic to electric power convertors); electrical infrastructure; wind and ocean conditions; foundations and substructures; operations and maintenance; and installation and decommissioning.

“The Catapult is looking for industry, large and small, to come forward with ideas to address these challenges, and work collaboratively with our own team of technical experts and test and demonstration assets to develop them into market-ready technology,” says Wyatt. “This direct call to industry to collaborate with ORE Catapult in key challenge areas is a vital step towards achieving the necessary cost reduction if the industry is to be competitive.” 

By [SMEs] being smaller and more agile, they can respond quicker to market opportunities, undertake research and development faster, and be more creative in their thinking

Dr Stephen Wyatt, Strategy and commercialisation director, ORE Catapult

The infrastructure required for any significant offshore development can be vast and costly. The recently installed Dolwin2 platform, for example – built at Dubai’s Drydocks World to provide offshore grid connection for wind farms on the German North Sea – weighs 23,000 tonnes and is larger than a football field.

Touted as the world’s most powerful offshore converter in the North Sea, the station has the potential to power around one million households with clean energy.

There are various innovations used in the connection of the wind farms to the converter station – the light system used provides neutral electromagnetic fields, and usage of underground cable systems minimises environmental impacts.

By using technology to improve the efficiency of the many individual elements that go into an offshore wind or tidal/wave farm – from the design and maintenance of turbine blades to the study of environmental data when choosing a location – costs can be significantly reduced.

And as the numbers start to add up, switching on to offshore will become increasingly attractive.