Public domain photo by Kim Hansen.
There is a role for helicopters servicing offshore wind farms, but it is up to the helicopter industry to seek out profitable opportunities as wind energy grows acceptance in Europe and elsewhere, said Khalid Kamhowi, head of advanced engineering for Offshore Wind Consultants at Helitech International in Amsterdam this week.
“Offshore wind is a growing, viable and sustainable industry in that investment in it is investment in the future,” Kamhawi said Oct. 16 at the conference. “Although, I wouldn’t say investment in oil and gas is investment in the past … but there are opportunities for the helicopter industry distributed all across the lifecycle of a wind farm.”
Airbus Helicopters foresees demand for 1,000 helicopters to support the offshore wind industry over the next 20 years.
Andy Overton, commercial manager of CHC Helicopters, did not put a number on the potential offshore wind market, but he agreed turbines "are going up and they're going up quickly."
"There is a bow wave coming and the wave is beginning to break," Overton said Oct. 17 at Helitech. "You're seeing a lot of steel going into the water."
The problem for the helicopter industry is current analysis and projections for growth in offshore wind is almost devoid of helicopters, Overton said.
Offshore oil-and-gas exploration, though recovering from a serious downturn, turned out to be a windfall for helicopter manufacturers as helicopters provided all manner of services to platforms farther and farther from shore.
“Oil and gas handed the opportunity on a silver platter,” Kamhawi said. “The onus is on the helicopter industry to find the opportunities in offshore wind.”
Overton agreed almost word for word that "the onus" is on the helicopter industry to capture the offshore wind market. Operators and helicopter manufacturers have millions of hours of experience operating in the dynamic, demanding environments where offshore wind arrays are found, he said.
"That's something we can bring to the market," Overton said. "But we need to make our offer simple. Helicopters are complicated machines. Helicopters are complicated to buy and operate. We need to simplify that message hugely."
Where the oil-and-gas industry is established and technologically conservative, offshore wind companies view themselves as progressive technological innovators. For that reason, windmill builders and maintainers are more likely to adopt drone technology for survey and maintenance tasks than manned helicopters, Kamhawi said.
Offshore wind farms are relatively small in their current iterations, with a few dozen up to a hundred turbines relatively close to shore with land-based power-relaying substations. By as early as 2023 — when GE plans to introduce the 12-kw Haliade turbine as tall as the Eiffel Tower with with 107-meter blades — wind farm arrays will be as far as 200 km from shore.
They will consist of “super arrays” of several hundred turbines linked by at-sea substations and manned maintenance platforms among the turbines, Kamhawi said. As energy companies are staking out locations for their future super-arrays, they are hiring survey vessels that can run up a $100,000 tab per day. Those vessels also waste time and money returning to shore to change crews, a much more expensive proposition as wind farms move farther offshore, he said.
As helicopter service companies do with offshore oil platforms, choppers could be equally valuable for running crews to and from wind farm survey vessels. They also could assist in construction and management of the turbines themselves.
The real opportunity comes with the operation and maintenance of the turbine farms, Kamhawi said. Maintaining the arrays account for 40 percent of the cost of establishing an offshore wind farm. Once the individual turbines are built, they are essentially unmanned, but as the arrays grow and require manned maintenance platforms, the demand for long-range helicopter transport will increase, he said.
Nadav Kessler, director of sales and business development for Asian Sky Group, is a confessed skeptic, if not an expert, on whether offshore wind will generate a sizable market for helicopters, especially the 1,000-aircraft figure over two decades.
“I just don’t see it becoming as significant a market as has been predicted,” he said at Helitech.
Offshore wind also doesn’t require the heavy, multi-passenger helicopters, like the Airbus H175 or the Leonardo AW139. Instead, offshore wind companies are using medium-twin helicopters like the H155 or smaller, said Fabian Graebner, VP of sales and commercial manager for Asia Pacific at Waypoint Leasing. Even 1,000 aircraft in 20 years is probably not appreciably larger market share than oil and gas in the same time period, Graebner said at the conference.
“Will it drive the same value as the growth in oil and gas over that time?” he said.