Robots can make offshore wind farms marine-friendly

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Laura Butula, Kingfisher Writer

Published June 2nd, 2022

Offshore wind farms aim to provide a never-ending supply of ‘green’ energy. Its role in climate change mitigation is clear, but the recent introduction of robotic technologies is advancing the potential of this energy sector even further. Juggling all the opportunities and barriers, what does the future hold?

The origins of renewable energy began over 2,000 years ago with the primitive, yet avant-garde, waterwheel. Today, technological advancements and increasing investments have popularised the renewable energy movement, raising awareness about wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower energy benefits.

Wind energy is increasingly explored and employed as a source of renewable energy. This form of renewable energy falls into two divisions: onshore wind power, where turbines located on land use wind to generate electricity, and offshore wind power, where turbines span open waters for the same function.

The Teeside offshore wind farm. | Paul / Flickr

Offshore wind farms are expensive to build, whether there are just a few wind turbines or there are hundreds. There are also many things to consider when choosing a location for the farm, including water depths, vessel traffic routes and the presence of military zones and protected areas. Once these factors have been carefully examined, the construction can begin.

Wind turbines work when the wind turns the blades of a turbine, causing the coils of conductive wire in the turbine generator to spin, which ultimately generates electricity through the process of electromagnetism. The produced electricity then goes to the offshore substation that transports the electricity onshore, where it is transformed and used for livelihood purposes.

‘Wind energy is increasingly explored and employed as a source of renewable energy.’

Offshore wind farms are considered more effective than their onshore counterparts, due to the electricity produced by higher and more consistent wind speeds, and less physical interference or obstacles (e.g., mountains) to the turbines.

Taking into account these advantages, more offshore wind farms are being built annually. At the start of 2020, there were 112 operational offshore wind farms, alongside 53 projects in pre- and under-construction and 712 projects in different developmental phases.

Many empirical studies have concluded that offshore wind energy has relatively high-efficiency rates compared to other energy sources such as onshore wind, solar, geothermal and small hydropower. It is therefore a promising energy source.

‘...offshore wind energy has relatively high-efficiency rates compared to other energy sources such as onshore wind, solar, geothermal and small hydropower.’

This statement is most convincing when looking at the environmental benefits of offshore wind energy. Ranking top tier for installed capacityーthe maximum quantity of electricity a generating station can produce in megawatts (MW)ーoffshore wind energy is a key player in climate change mitigation. This high-installed capacity means that offshore wind turbines require less space to generate significant energy.

Additionally, offshore farms emit little to no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of course, all electricity-generating technologies release GHGs, but offshore farms fall into the same low emissions category as nuclear and hydropower. The IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation confirms that offshore farms have a strong potential to reduce near-term (2020) and long-term (2050) GHG emissions.

One study from 2020 demonstrated that offshore wind power resulted in a total annual reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) by 27,048,916 tons and 629,060 tons, respectively. Notably, CO2 is a direct GHG, while SO2 is an indirect GHG.

A greenhouse gas (GHG) counter made by the Deutsche Bank Group. | Luc Van Braekel / Flickr

Offshore wind offers a sustainable source for providing renewable energy whilst meeting international climate targets. There are, however, issues such as high costs, demanding building criteria, safety and operational logistics associated with this energy source.

Fortunately, modern technology might be saving the day once again; energy giants are now using cutting-edge robots to evaluate, monitor, and even build offshore wind turbines. The hope is that successful robot trials could lead to authorised applications in which robots could support the advancement of the offshore renewable sector and associated companies.

‘Energy giants are now using cutting-edge robots to evaluate, monitor, and even build offshore wind turbines.’

Indeed, robotic technologies can take away the mundane tasks carried out on offshore wind farms, including meticulous inspections, repair works, cleaning, systems testing, and replacement of lubricants for rotating machinery parts.

Technical advancements also put forward economic benefits. The Economic Opportunity for Robotics in Offshore Wind and Key Energy Markets report published by the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (ORE Catapult) in 2021 verifies that operating expenses of energy companies could decrease by 27.1% and offshore turbine availability could increase if all current robotic technology proposals are realised.

Programming robots for automated inspection of complex structures, such as offshore wind farms. | TWI ltd / Flickr

However, Brendan Englot, the interim director of the Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence, commented that ‘sending a robot underwater is an inherently risky process’ because marine environments are typically complex and unpredictable. Nonetheless, several recent breakthroughs have highlighted the importance of utilising robotics in the offshore wind sector.

For example, the French multinational electric utility company, Électricité de France (EDF), partnered with the ORCA Hub, to explore the possible applications for drone technologies to evaluate offshore wind turbines. The partners deployed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to three gravity-based turbine foundations to assess the structures’ exterior and to create a 3D model of associated underwater assets.

An Offshore Wind Research Engineer at EDF R&D UK Centre, Maxime Duchet, stated that ‘these images, and the modelling they enable, will greatly enhance our ability to carry out operations and maintenance activities on-site.’

Other businesses and institutes have also explored the implementation of autonomous robots in marine settings. A research team at the Stevens Institute of Technology used a customised BlueROV2 robot to design an underwater bot that can rapidly and accurately map and navigate an aquatic environment. With its tracking and routing features, the robot offers additional applicationsーbuilding and maintaining offshore wind farms.

Now that the prospects of robotic interventions on offshore wind farms are increasingly acknowledged, scientists have begun to look at the associated environmental effects of their use. In short, it turns out that robots can make offshore wind farms more environmentally friendly.

Firstly, using robots as described above can reduce the number of high-emitting vessels within the sector, since robots are smaller machines that can stay at a wind farm for a longer duration. Therefore, companies can avoid using large vessels that burn petroleum derived fuels, which emit GHGs such as CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) exploring an aquatic habitat using unique built-in features. | Aquarius Reef Base / Flickr

Secondly, robots hold unique methods of non-contact sensing, including sonar and radar. These systems allow robots to steer through aquatic habitats with little damage or interference to marine life.

Thirdly, the application of robotic technologies can extend the operational lifetime of offshore wind turbines. At-present, turbine blades are either dumped in landfills or burned once their functionality ends. Energy giants could contribute to developing a circular economy if they increased turbines’ lifespans and found alternative purposes for them.

Regrettably, there are some setbacks that hinder the widespread use of robots in the offshore wind sector. A key challenge is ensuring that robotic technologies are safe and reliable; the use of a robot on an offshore farm needs to be supplemented with some sort of guarantee that uncertainties and unknowns in the aquatic offshore realm can be prepared for. If all fails, an explanation and future solutions are necessary.

‘These systems allow robots to steer through aquatic habitats with little damage or interference to marine life.’

Another barrier is the optimisation of human-machine interaction (HMI), which ensures dependable cooperation between people and autonomous robots. It is obvious that a better HMI system can create a more productive environment, but how can this relation be achieved? How do employees feel about this relationship? What needs to be addressed?

Indeed, many questions remain to target complications and achieve the optimal integration of robotic technologies in offshore wind farms. Looking into the future, Alex Louden, the senior technology acceleration manager at the ORE Catapult, believes that there is a ‘huge opportunity for robotics to have a really large impact within the offshore wind sector.’ In the next five years, it is likely that this ‘impact’ will be clearer and more serviceable.

Featured Image: Department of Energy and Climate Change| Flickr

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