September 27, 2022
How will sensor technology and digital twins influence the development of floating offshore wind?
Floating offshore wind is the renewable energy industry’s next frontier. While fixed-bottom turbines have been fixtures of global coastlines for years, they’re not suitable everywhere: seabed depth, stable wind supply, competing coastal industry needs and community concerns can all be limiting factors.
Floating offshore wind overcomes these issues, but the fledgling industry brings its own set of challenges. Producing energy offshore is complex and expensive. The assets take a pummelling in harsh high-energy environments, a variety of platform and mooring styles are still being piloted, and the energy produced needs to be transported long distances into the power grid, to name a few.
However, unlike the nascence of previous offshore industries, floating wind has a huge advantage: our ability to transfer digital technology and analysis skills from the industries that precede it.
In recent years the oil and gas sector has invested huge amounts of funding into developing digital solutions to optimise asset design, construction and operations. Building on this foundation and developing sector-specific high-tech insights will be the key to overcoming the challenges of floating offshore wind, and quickly scale an industry that is reliable, cost-effective, safe, and meets the world’s energy needs.
What is a digital twin?
Behind the buzzword, a ‘digital twin’ is essentially a virtual representation of a real-world asset. To create this digital replica, a series of sensors are placed at critical points on an asset, both topside and subsea. These include motion trackers, positioning through use of dGPS, and wireless subsea sensors, measuring all aspects of its movement.
This data is used to make a virtual copy of the asset in a dashboard. We also feed in other environmental data sets, like weather forecasting and wave buoy data. This means we can monitor the asset in real time and build up a long-term database of how it behaves over weeks, months and years in response to different environmental influences.
For a floating offshore wind turbine, we’re not just monitoring the turbine itself, but the platform, moorings and dynamic power cable. This is significant: on a commercial scale, a floating offshore wind farm could have hundreds of mooring lines, many more than a standard oil and gas asset. This presents a whole new set of challenges than those we’re used to offshore, and will require close monitoring of sensor data as the industry develops from pilot farms to commercial scale.
Real time, data-driven decision making
As well as remotely monitoring offshore wind parks in real time, we can generate accurate condition reports and react immediately to any anomaly. Digital twins reduce the need for offshore inspections and asset downtime, which carry both personnel and financial risk.
‘Data-driven decisions’ is another phrase that’s become jargon, but essentially, it means the sensors provide insights that inform our decision-making at every phase of a project, from design to construction, installation, operation and end-of-life. Applying digital technology to technical problems makes ocean infrastructure less complex, which is exactly what’s needed in developing industries with unique challenges like floating offshore wind.
Sensor technology and “digital twins” are set to influence the development of floating offshore wind farms, with Australia an emerging market.
Simulations and predictive maintenance
While having a real-time overview is useful, the biggest value in sensor and digital twin technology is the ability to run simulations over the whole life of individual assets and entire wind farms. This gives us greater accuracy in planning operations and optimising the way a turbine behaves to maximise performance and minimise wear and tear, across every corner of a wind park.
This creates huge benefits in terms of being able to run a turbine array at its maximum capacity based on wind speed and other environmental loads, recalibrating instantly to adapt to changing environmental factors. We can carry out tailored maintenance when an asset actually needs it, or predictive maintenance at opportune times, instead of taking assets offline for upkeep based on blanket rules and standards, conservative asset lifespan estimates, or traditional survey schedules.
Further, the data that sensors gather gives us the powerful ability to create machine learning loops. We combine an analysis engineer’s brain with major computational power. Engineering tasks that took weeks now take hours. This means that our digital insights and simulations become even more accurate and efficient as the volume of data grows, allowing us to be increasingly precise in our asset optimisation and maintenance.
Insights from sensor data and precision machine learning means we can predict how any wind turbine design will behave in any environmental scenario across its lifespan.
This means at the earliest stages of planning and due diligence we can guide a developer on the best design and location for a turbine array. We can advise on mooring and power cable design and substation location. We can give investors confidence in a wind farm’s viability and their predicted return on investment. Asset operators can run a turbine in the sweet spot between output and load. Grid regulators can receive reliable predictions on the expected energy supply entering the network. Our digital twin dashboards automatically create and send reports to class and regulatory bodies, streamlining communication and compliance. We can gauge the need for battery storage capacity, or the supply available for other emerging energy-hungry industries like green hydrogen production.
The future is floating
While the birth of any new industry brings challenges, the floating offshore wind energy is a perfect example of the ‘energy transition’: the transfer of skills and technology to confidently scale the sector, building on the learnings from the heavy ocean industries that come before.
Sensor technology, digital twins and machine learning are already at a level today to guide in planning, building and operating floating offshore wind farms. As the technology continues to mature, floating offshore wind will become one of the leading global sources of renewable energy that provides stable power supply with low environmental and community impact – finally harnessing the vast potential of ocean energy in a way that’s good for business and the planet.
This article was also published on Ecogeneration.