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Why offshore wind plans must include communication networks

Offshore construction companies, turbine manufacturers, and wind farm operators and owners are turning to digitalization and automation for improved performance.

Contributed by Chris Jones, Nokia Head of Energy Business for Europe

As countries around the world sign-up for net-zero emission targets, many are tapping into offshore wind. While the market has shown clear growth over the past few years, the IEA believes it’s yet to achieve its potential of generating more than 420,000 TWh of electricity per year worldwide. To support this output, turbines, blades, and wind farms themselves are going to grow and be sited further away from shore.

These harsh environments and remote locations pose unique challenges to the safety and productivity of construction and on-site maintenance teams as well as operational continuity. And larger turbines and wind farms mean more profit is at risk with any construction delay and outage during the warranty period and its lifecycle operation. That’s why offshore construction companies, turbine manufacturers, and wind farm operators and owners are turning to digitalization and automation for improvement. This will allow faster access to more data on turbine health and the environment around them, and the ability to utilize that data with analytics, machine learning, and digital twins. These use-cases will help to improve asset performance and the implementation of new health and safety equipment, along with digital tools for onsite worker safety and productivity. 

To make this work, an evolution from a reliance on voice communications using very high frequency (VHF) band and Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA), towards voice, video, and broadband data has occurred through deployments of private broadband wireless networks that cover a wind farm and corridor back to port. This evolution isn’t only being realized at new wind farms under construction, but also in retrofits of existing wind farms to boost safety and performance throughout their lifecycle and enable a uniform operational infrastructure across all wind farms.

Maintenance personnel working on turbines and service vessels must be supported by reliable communications networks that enable more intuitive ways for them to connect with each other and to onshore teams. Constant monitoring of environmental conditions, including vibration, temperature, and humidity of equipment will be essential to optimize operations and ensure safety and security. That’s why, as output increases, smart communications networks are going to shoulder more of the burden.

Tackling the Connectivity Challenge

Thankfully, secure, reliable private 4G and 5G networks are more than up to the challenge. With the ability to connect assets kilometers apart and support the low latency and high-bandwidth transfer of data, they are perfectly suited to the offshore environment.

Once access to spectrum for a private wireless network has been secured, private wireless antennas are initially placed on the offshore substation platform, and to extend coverage, also on some turbines, for communications during the construction phase. Transfer of data over the long distance back to shore is initially supported by a microwave radio link, and then, once laid, by a subsea fiber optical cable. Microwave is then utilized as the redundant path, ensuring that if any damage occurs to the cable, communication will be maintained.

Leveraging Industry 4.0 capabilities to enhance planning, operations, and safety

For those living and working on service vessels for weeks at a time, private wireless networks are becoming indispensable, not just to enable video calls with loved ones back home or to support movie streaming during downtime.

By connecting assets and infrastructure spread across several kilometers with a private 4G/LTE network, teams can take advantage of enhanced communications and Industry 4.0 capabilities to simplify asset maintenance and optimize costs and productivity. Workers at the top of a nacelle, for example, or on the service vessel itself, can rapidly connect to onshore support staff on group video calls for real-time expert input. With always-on LTE connectivity even inside the tower, onsite workers are afforded greater insight enabling faster diagnosis and repair, while also increasing worker safety and security at the site. Remote workers can also take advantage of new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and real-time operational data, to leverage the most holistic view of any issue.

Powering operational efficiencies

As wind farms grow to incorporate more turbines placed across greater distances. It’s going to become even more challenging and time-consuming for maintenance and asset inspections to be conducted in person. Wind farm operators need to minimize maintenance windows and costs while also ensuring they safeguard against expensive outages.

Using robust, reliable private wireless connectivity teams will be able to extend remote monitoring beyond the capabilities of SCADA networks, enhance site security, and better prioritize their work. One example is the use of drones. Where regulations permit, these can be controlled remotely from anywhere, by anyone connected to the network, or programmed to follow set inspection flight paths. Using drones to send high-definition images back to control centers and those on the service vessel reduces the need for workers to visit turbines in person and reduces the amount of time that the turbine is inactive thereby maximizing the turbine’s output.

Smart technology such as AI and machine learning, combined with operational data from connected sensors, will inform new preventative maintenance capabilities. Data can be analyzed in real-time and compared to ‘normal’ operations. Anomalies will alert teams ensuring they need only to visit turbines requiring attention. And, by correcting potential issues before equipment is damaged or expensive outages occur, they can extend the life of that equipment.

The advantages enabled by private wireless extend beyond the transformation of monitoring and preventative maintenance activities. Their flexibility ensures that as new turbines are added, they can be easily incorporated on to the network. Planning activities can be enhanced by leveraging digital twin capabilities, using operational data with AR technology to simulate configurations before real-world changes are made. Onsite training too can be augmented, allowing new recruits more hours to train safely on costly equipment while experiencing a range of hostile environments; and an experienced worker can refresh their understanding of the procedures for a turbine installed a decade ago.  

A holistic solution delivers enhanced capabilities

To maximize the potential of private wireless networks, a holistic approach is vital. Wind farm operators should investigate solutions that transform the on-site toolkit available to workers in remote locations.

Ruggedised, weather-proofed user equipment, including tablets and handheld devices supporting push-to-talk and video, wearables such as smart glasses allowing workers to see real-time data about a turbine as they work, connected helmets with integrated headsets and more, are all now available. These allow workers to manage their work more effectively, and access and share information with colleagues unencumbered by additional equipment. By adopting a private wireless solution that simplifies the integration of this user equipment within the network, wind farm operators will be able to accelerate their digital transformation.

Advancing improvements in performance

Ongoing developments in sensors and monitoring equipment will allow offshore wind farm operators to access even more value from their data to further enhance operations and asset performance.  A wireless network makes it easier and quicker to deploy these relative to cabling them into an existing network.

As capabilities continue to evolve a private wireless network will evolve with them. Being future-proofed for 5G means that offshore wind farm operators will be prepared for the challenges that will come as they extend operations, allowing them to capitalize on new Industry 4.0 trends and capabilities for even greater flexibility to meet our growing demand for sustainable energy.

About the author

Chris Jones, Nokia Head of Energy Business for Europe

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