Why offshore wind plans must include communication networks

Photo Credit: steve docwra/Bigstock.com
Photo Credit: Steve Docwra/Bigstock.com

Contributed by Chris Jones (Navigation Head for Energy Business for Europe at Nokia)

Many countries are turning to offshore wind as they sign up for net-zero emission goals. 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. Turbines, blades, wind farms, and other equipment will continue to grow in order to support this output.

These harsh and remote environments pose unique challenges for the safety and productivity as well as operational continuity. Larger turbines and wind farms are more profitable, as they pose a greater risk for any construction delay or outage during the warranty period or its lifecycle. That’s why offshore construction companies, turbine manufacturers, and wind farm operators and owners are turning to digitalization and automation for improvement. This will give you faster access to data about the turbines and the environment, and allow you to use that data with machine learning, analytics, and digital twins. These use-cases can be used to improve asset performance, as well as the implementation of new safety and health equipment. 

This is possible through the deployment of private broadband wireless networks that cover a windfarm 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.

Reliable communications networks must allow maintenance personnel to communicate with one another and with onshore teams in more intuitive ways. Monitoring the environment, including temperature, humidity, and vibration, is vital to optimize operations and ensure safety. That’s why, as output increases, smart communications networks are going to shoulder more of the burden.

Connectivity Challenge

Secure, reliable and reliable private 4G/5G networks are more than capable of meeting the challenge. They are well-suited for the offshore environment because they can connect assets far away and allow data to be transferred at high latency and high bandwidth.

Once spectrum access has been secured, private antennas will be placed on the offshore platform to provide coverage. During construction, some turbines will also be used to extend the coverage. First, a microwave radio link is used to transfer data long distances back from shore. Then, once laid, a subsea fibre optical cable is used. The redundant path is then used by microwave to ensure that communication is maintained even if the cable is damaged.

Utilize Industry 4.0 capabilities for improved planning, operations, safety, and security

Private wireless networks are indispensable for service personnel who live on or work on vessels that are in port for several weeks. These networks allow for video calls back home and support movie streaming in downtime.

Teams can connect assets and infrastructure over several kilometers using a private 4G/LTE connection. This allows them to take advantage of enhanced communications and Industry4.0 capabilities. This will simplify asset maintenance and optimize productivity. Workers at the top of the nacelle or on the vessel can connect quickly to support staff via group video calling for real-time expert advice. LTE connectivity is available inside the tower to give workers greater insight. This allows for faster diagnosis and repair and increases worker safety and security. Remote workers can also use new technologies such as augmented realities (AR) or real-time operational data to get a complete view of any issue.

Powering operational efficiencies

Wind farms will become more complex and include more turbines spread over 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 must minimize maintenance costs and maximize their profitability while protecting against costly outages.

Reliable, private wireless connectivity teams can be used to extend remote monitoring beyond what is possible with SCADA networks, improve site security, and better prioritize their work. One example is the use drones. These can be controlled remotely, provided regulations allow, from any location. They can also be programmed to follow predetermined 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.

Combining smart technology like AI and machine learning with operational data from connected sensors will enable new preventative maintenance capabilities. Data can be analyzed in real-time and compared to ‘normal’ operations. Teams will be notified if there are any anomalies. They can then visit the turbines that require attention. They can extend the equipment’s lifespan by fixing potential problems before costly outages or equipment is damaged.

Private wireless offers more than the ability to transform monitoring and preventative maintenance. They are flexible enough to allow for easy integration of new turbines into the network as they are added. Digital twin capabilities can be used to enhance planning activities. They combine operational data with AR technology to simulate configurations, before real-world changes are made. It is possible to augment on-site training. This allows new recruits to spend more time safely using expensive equipment in hostile environments. Experienced workers can refresh their knowledge about the procedures for a turbine they installed a decade back.  

A holistic solution delivers enhanced capabilities

A holistic approach is crucial to maximize the potential private wireless networks. Wind farm operators should look into solutions that can transform the on-site toolkit accessible to workers in remote locations.

Now, all types of weather-proofed, ruggedized equipment are available, including tablets and handheld devices that support push-to-talk, video, and wearables such smart glasses that allow workers real-time data about the turbine. Also, helmets with integrated headsets, as well as connected helmets, are now readily available. These devices enable workers to work more efficiently and to share information with their colleagues without additional equipment. Wind farm operators will be able accelerate their digital transformation by using a private wireless solution that makes it easier to integrate this equipment into the network.

Performance improvements

Offshore wind farm operators will be able to access more value from their data, thanks to ongoing developments in sensors and monitoring equipment. This will allow them to improve asset performance and operations.  These devices can be deployed wirelessly, which makes it much easier and faster than cabling them into an existing network.

Private wireless networks will continue to evolve as capabilities change. Future-proofed for 5G means offshore wind farm operators can be prepared for the challenges they will face as they expand operations. This will allow them to capitalize on new Industry4.0 trends and capabilities to provide greater flexibility to meet growing demand for sustainable energy.

About the author

Chris Jones, Nokia Head for Energy Business for Europe