Going the distance: what it takes to remotely manage offshore wind farms

Going the distance: what it takes to remotely manage offshore wind farms

As the only nation with claim to an entire continent, Australia has some distinct advantages – including incredible potential for offshore wind energy generation. 

In fact, considering just the coastal regions that are relatively accessible from a technical standpoint, our offshore wind energy potential with current technology alone is well over 2000 GW, above current and projected domestic demand.1

Domestic capacity currently sits at precisely zero,2 although it won’t stay that way for long. More than 20 offshore projects are being developed, with a combined capacity of more than 60 MW.2 

That is dwarfed by current global offshore wind capacity, which had reached 65 GW by 2022 and continues to grow rapidly.3 

While we have some catching up to do, this only makes the economics of investments in offshore wind even more compelling. With more than three decades of international offshore wind farm experience to call upon, Australia is able to leapfrog many stages of development, drawing upon current best practice when it comes to the engineering, technology and processes that make offshore wind energy possible. 

Navigating offshore wind farm challenges 

That existing experience is particularly vital given the extraordinarily harsh environment that offshore wind turbines operate in.

Turbines and the associated subsea infrastructure must withstand extreme peaks in winds and currents, saltwater corrosion and the general unpredictability of nature. 

And of course, the same vast coastline that gives Australia such rich advantages in offshore wind generation also means our offshore wind sites can be far from major centres. This further exacerbates the already high complexity of maintaining and repairing these colossal structures. 

Moreover, if something does go wrong, rough weather can make it exceedingly dangerous or even impossible for maintenance crews to access a turbine platform. Downtime is incredibly expensive for turbines, so these sorts of delays can have material impacts on the financial health of a project.

Because of environmental conditions, offshore wind farms have a shorter lifespan, meaning performance and uptime are crucially important to ensure return on investment. 

Engineering resources to operate and maintain offshore facilities are stretched, in Australia in particular, as the number of projects increases and as other major infrastructure builds also soak up talent. 

These factors are why maintenance of an offshore facility can contribute up to 35 per cent of the wind farm’s lifetime cost.

This is where managing offshore wind operations remotely can increase productivity and in turn, profitability.  

Increasingly, the control systems that underpin an offshore wind farm are crucial drivers of the project’s productivity, by enabling high performance and high uptime. 

At ABB, we’ve seen best-practice remote operations in all of its forms. More than 40,000 wind turbines around the globe use ABB components – from electrical to telecom to automation solutions. This is some of what we’ve learned. 

Remote control of offshore wind turbines

Visibility – and control – from the tip of turbine blade right through to an enterprise-level cloud view is key

Traditional Single Asset Monitoring approaches leave significant performance potential untapped. Optimising system-level performance requires unifying all systems – turbines, substation equipment, energy distribution assets, weather conditions and more – into a unified view. 

Data analytics ensures constant improvement in performance and efficiency. Artificial intelligence and machine learning offer predictive functionality, meaning various parts of the platform can self-manage, including adjusting in advance for incoming weather.

This is true in some surprising ways. For instance, logic says that turbines turned directly into the oncoming wind will produce energy most efficiently. However, data has shown us that small adjustments in attack angle can optimise performance. 

However, this can only be achieved when data from each turbine in a set is analysed for each specific weather pattern and wind direction. Such data, when gathered remotely, can enable immediate realignment and therefore instant efficiency outcomes.  For example, by slightly misaligning the lead turbines in a group, the performance of downstream turbines can be boosted. This intentional yaw misalignment can result in a net power gain of up to two per cent. 

That same data used to train an artificial intelligence system can create a self-managed, collective control system that automatically optimises itself. 

Remote maintenance of offshore wind turbines

The most efficient turbine operation is of little use if it is not running.  

The difficulties, expenses and delays involved in getting maintenance crews on to a turbine means how well it can be maintained remotely is paramount. 

This is where predictive maintenance is so powerful. By combining remote access asset diagnostics with system condition monitoring, we can prevent unscheduled downtime and the steep costs associated with it.  For those times when an on-turbine maintenance crew is needed, ABB is also working on ways to make delivering these crews safer and more reliable.  

As part of its OCTOPUS project, we’re working on a robot-supported mission planning solution, using data to plan how to optimally deploy crews and specific support vessels in dynamic conditions, boosting the windows of opportunity to get crews on-turbine. 

Subsea substations 

One of the areas in which Australia has a significant opportunity to leapfrog its global peers is in moving offshore wind power substations from sea level to the seabed. 

This emerging approach, which ABB is helping lead thanks to its decades of experience in helping power deep-water oil and gas operations, offers numerous technical and economic advantages. 

It foregoes the need to build large foundations for fixed platforms, or to navigate the difficulties of dynamic cable movements present for floating platforms. 

Able to be run entirely remotely, such subsea substations cut maintenance needs and human exposure to risk. They also require less steel, with the surrounding seawater providing cooling for free.   

Reaching Australia’s offshore wind energy potential 

The success of Australia’s offshore wind industry matters well beyond the industry itself – the sector is a vital pillar in the nation’s path to decarbonisation. 

Australia’s size gives us both big potential and hefty challenges when it comes to scaling offshore wind capacity.    

The successful deployment and remote management of offshore wind technologies demand the integration of advanced automation technologies. With a deliberate and well-planned approach that encompasses these technologies, Australia can overcome the geographical challenges presented by its coastlines and establish itself as a leader in offshore wind energy, fostering a greener future and a more resilient energy grid. 

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References

  1. Offshore Wind Energy in Australia: Final Project Report, Blue Economy CRC, 2021. 
  2. Global offshore wind: Australia, Norton Rose Fulbright, 2024. 
  3. Global Offshore Wind Report 2023, Global Wind Energy Council, 2023. 
  4. Quantifying the impact of Robotics in Offshore Wind, Offshore Wind Innovation Hub, 2021. 

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