The landscape of the UK’s energy network is literally changing as the Government looks to the sea with plans to make the country a world leader in offshore wind. With the market swinging into action to complete the first rounds of planning, what are the key developments and how can the composites supply chain get involved? Simon Lott reports.
The offshore wind sector is about to hit a critical period as plans to greatly extend the renewable energy network crystallise and enter construction, growing at an order of magnitude comparable to the giant new turbines that will adorn future wind farms. The UK currently generates around 1.3GW of its power through offshore wind – more than 40% of the world’s capacity.
By 2020, the Government, led by the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) latest ‘UK Renewable Energy Roadmap’, anticipates around 18GW of capacity will be installed. This is significantly more ambitious than its previous target of 13GW, with trade association RenewableUK and technical consultancy BVG Associates quoting even more ambitious predictions of 23.2GW and 24GW respectively.
The revised Governmental figure of 18GW is more significant than a simple case of more ambitious growth plans. The UK has had to import more and more fossil fuels as time goes on but even so there is a real risk that energy shortages will become a real problem in the next decade. The DECC’s recent ‘Planning our Electric Future’ white paper predicts ‘unprecedented challenges in the coming decades’ due to closures of existing plant (amounting to around 20GW lost over the next decade), a need to decarbonise electricity generation, increasing demand and increasing prices.
The UK also has a legal commitment to 15% of the energy mix coming from renewable sources by 2020. Electricity alone will need to be about 30% renewable to meet its part of the bargain, about half of which is expected to come from offshore wind. Furthermore, this boost in capacity over the next decade means greater prospects for stimulating a healthy indigenous supply chain as OEMs set up and expand in the UK.
Administered by The Crown Estate, the ongoing Rounds 1 and 2 of leasing and construction will account for 1.5GW and 7.2GW installed capacity across 29 sites, the largest completed so far being Thanet, opened last September and containing 100 3MW Vestas V90 turbines. Extensions to these first two rounds will add a further 1.5GW and a round in Scottish Territorial Waters will add another 5.3GW. It is Round 3 however, starting in 2015, where the industry will really kick off, adding a potential 32.2GW capacity around the country.
Given the uncertainty over how the sheer demand is to be met, signs from the Government have been not only encouraging, but crucial to ensuring that manufacture occurs within our own shores, promising long-term market stability and affordable development. Of the big manufacturers, Vestas has been one of the first to lay out its ambitions for the UK. Much maligned for closing its manufacturing operation on the Isle of Wight two years ago, the Danish turbine producer has re-emerged on the opposite side of the River Medina with a new state of the art R&D technology centre focused on development, prototyping and testing of 80m long blades for its V164 turbine.
172 employees are now based at the West Medina Mills site with scope for expansion to a total 390. The company has also announced plans to build a fully integrated 70 hectare manufacturing facility at the Port of Sheerness in Kent, where the V164 will enter production in 2015, which the company says will potentially create 2,000 new direct and indirect jobs.
Launched in March, the V164 is Vestas’ first dedicated offshore turbine, specifically designed for the roughest North Sea conditions. Each of its blades is longer than eight London Routemaster Buses, will sweep an area over 21,000m2 and will weigh 35 tonnes. Each turbines will produce 7MW of electricity – enough for 7,000 homes.
The prototype and test halls, each the size of two football pitches, will allow full scale blade prototyping, testing and verification to commence in 2012 ahead of production at Sheerness. Vestas’ largest installed test rig is capable of taking blades up to 85m in length and required 350m3 of concrete for its foundations. The only other facilities for complete testing readily available in the UK are the open access Narec facilities in Blyth.
A valued resource
Speaking at the unveiling of the new facilities, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne said: “The UK has this priceless advantage of massive wind resource and we also have the extraordinary challenges of trying to harvest that wind resource in some of the most difficult marine environments in the world – if we can make it happen here, we can make it happen anywhere in the world.”
He continued: “It’s an absolutely key part of making sure we can keep the lights on all the way over the UK because at the moment about a quarter of all our existing powerplant – whether it’s old coal plants, or nuclear plants, is coming offline and if you guys don’t get this right, we’re going to have a problem!”
Huhne also confirmed that Government understood the importance of the manufacturing market to the wider economy, adding: “One of the things, as a local MP from the other side of the water as well, that I see is that we’ve got a particular expertise in marine technologies here around the Solent, particularly in the use of carbon composites, which I think are going to stand us in very good stead in the future in a lot of these new industries.”
Also present, Vestas’ president and CEO Ditlev Engel announced: “What we’re in for here is something nobody else has done before. I would like to thank Chris and the rest of the Government for the focus you have on developing wind energy in the UK and it’s absolutely essential for us and I guarantee you that we will do whatever possible to bring the cost of energy down so we become a good business case not just from an environmental perspective but also from a Pound, Euro and Dollar perspective.”
Energy up, costs down
There will be challenges ahead, not least the sheer difficulty of producing ever longer blades with greater strain and fatigue resistance. Greater capacity for energy harvesting will be crucial for the market to succeed, but wind is one of the few industries where the cost of end products will actually be bought down by the use of more advanced composite technologies. So, as demand grows, the current 7MW set by the V164 is by no means the limit. The industry is anticipating 10MW turbines with blades up to 200m in length before too long. The Azimut Project (a consortium of 11 Spanish companies and 22 research centres led by Gamesa) aims to go even further with a commercially available 15MW product by 2020.
While the technology behind these enormous structures in still uncertain, there are two main blade design concepts in use today. A spar-based design is used by both Vestas and Gamesa (both of whom are the dominant users of carbon fibre in the wind market). The spar, consisting of carbon fibre, epoxy and glass is assembled and glued into the two shells as the mould closes. As far as Vestas is concerned, a carbon spar is key to the whole structure. Up to and including the V164 the fundamentals of manufacture remain the same so to an extent, the technology is already proven. The alternative design is a spar cap concept uses caps manufactured separately and assembled into each shell, with longitudinal shear webs used to stiffen the blade.
Demands and opportunities
According to the recent report from BVG Associates, ‘Offshore wind: Opportunities for the composites industry’, approximately 6.5% of a wind farm consists of composite material, primarily on the rotor and some parts of the nosecone, nacelle and nacelle cover. There are also a number of other components that potentially could use composite materials in the future if costs are reduced and weight becomes a greater factor, including the hub, main shaft, some generator components, acid protection elements such as cabinets and gearbox covers, the tower and the bed plate. The report also identifies five main areas for composite companies to get involved:
1) Component manufacture and supply
2) Material supply
3) Manufacturing support to composite factories
4) Blade repair and condition monitoring
5) R&D for processes and materials
Speaking at the Composites UK Annual Conference last May, BVG Associates’ Zoë Barnes explained: “Blade manufacture is perhaps one of the more limited areas for tier suppliers to become involved in due to the technical, IP sensitive nature of the work. Nosecones and nacelles however are an easier prospect and could be sourced locally from external subcontractors.
“Opportunities for material supply are more significant. We’re anticipating around 80 tonnes of annual demand by 2020, mostly glass with some carbon. There are also opportunities for manufacturing support like tooling. Most moulds are made in house but some aren’t, and there are things like infusion equipment, cutting equipment, fibre placement and automation which are becoming very key within the industry to get the quality, scale and speed of manufacture needed to meet targets. There are an awful lot of challenges still in automation for example.
“There are also opportunities for blade repair and condition monitoring. This is specialist stuff and requires some element of composites expertise for inspection, paint and gelcoat repairs, composite damage and lightning system protection repairs. A growing demand for condition monitoring is there too.
“On the R&D side there are a lot of key challenges that the industry needs to solve. 80m blades have a long way to go to solve the technical challenges for stiffness and weight and for manufacture as well as logistics and handling. Faster production time will be essential to create the volumes we need and bring costs down. Reliability too is key in offshore and operations and maintenance is a much bigger cost driver than in other composite industries. Improved modelling for reliability, improved manufacturing processes and condition monitoring will all come under that.”
In achieving this, BVG suggests several important areas of skills and technology transfer for those looking to diversify, suggesting a lot can be learned from the automotive and motorsport industries on rapid prototyping and bringing products to market quickly. The wind industry also, almost exclusively, uses out of autoclave processes which is a shared challenge with aerospace.
The bottom line for the industry and the hugely advantageous geography of our windswept island and its surrounding waters is that according to BVG’s estimates, the UK wind industry workforce likely to increase ten-fold in 10 years while the demand for composite materials for blade manufacture throughout Europe will be about 78,000 tonnes in 2020. With the Government making clear signs to get the industry moving and the major constructors staking their claim, the fog is beginning to lift on the structure of the UK’s renewable future.