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Converging futures in the North Sea

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Oilfield Technology,

James Young, CTO at JDR, looks at what the offshore O&G and renewables sectors can learn from each other.

Obvious differences aside, what has set the business models for oil and gas and renewables apart is the attitude towards cost. When the oil price is up, the oil and gas sector has traditionally adopted a high-spend approach to exploration, development and extraction.

As more of a challenger industry, that is a luxury that renewables hasn’t been able to enjoy. Striving to enhance its competitiveness and in anticipation of the end of subsidy regimes, the focus on reducing costs has been embedded in offshore wind from its inception.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, with a prolonged slump in the oil price, oil and gas operators are looking at the renewables sector as a potential source of cost savings. Equally, in its constant search for cost-effective innovation, the renewables sector has been eyeing up solutions from its oil and gas counterparts.

The idea that there could be some technology-driven convergence between the sectors is not as outlandish as it may once have seemed.

Nowhere is this convergence more obvious than in offshore energy generation, where technologies used by the North Sea oil and gas community are being considered by offshore wind operators, and innovations developed for wind and tidal generation are being considered by oil and gas operators.

Higher voltage, lower costs

The first area of interest is high-voltage cabling developed for offshore wind generation that can also be used in the oil and gas sector as a cost-competitive solution for driving large amounts of power across the seabed.

For example, new so-called ‘wet design’ 66kV cabling significantly steps up the voltage from the 33kV inter-array standard cable capacity and is being adopted by a number of new wind development projects. The advantages of this type of cabling is that it enables power to be transmitted to and from larger turbines that are installed further offshore – essential as the industry starts to look beyond shallower waters.

The cable was initially developed to support expansion of offshore wind turbine capacity to higher power generation, enabling developers to exploit more offshore wind resources including locations further away from shore. But those high-power, deeper-water characteristics also make it a suitable technology for offshore oil and gas applications.

Dynamic opportunities

In return, the possibilities offered by deep-water operations give the offshore wind industry plenty of opportunity to consider the technologies residing in the oil and gas sector. There is a drive towards floating structures for offshore wind to reduce construction costs associated with building an offshore windfarm in harsh environments and to create more efficient maintenance operations.

With the Continental Shelf dropping away, floating systems are going to be a very interesting development in the North Sea, offering significant growth potential. When Statoil presented its view of offshore wind up to 2030, it claimed that approximately 105 GWh of installed capacity – or about 20 to 25 per cent of the total – would be floating offshore wind.

Naturally, managing floating structures is something that the oil and gas sector has been doing for decades. And with savings in capital and operational expenditure on offer, the offshore wind industry is looking to replicate its success – in particular, by deploying more dynamic power cables that can be hooked onto floating structures. These cables have to be capable of installation and dynamic operation underneath a floating structure, and withstand the fatigue loads and environmental conditions throughout cable life.

This type of cable is being considered is in the deployment of renewable technology to help power the subsea needs of oil and gas operators. Projects such as the DNV-GL led WIN WIN joint-industry project are already looking at the feasibility of using a floating offshore wind turbine with battery storage and other equipment to pump water into an oil and gas well.

Collaboration and convergence

Once again, many of the underlying differences come down to cost. Static cables for current offshore windfarms tend to be a highly cost-efficient design, optimised for a range of subsea locations and often protected by additional cable protection conduits. In contrast, cables for dynamic systems are a highly engineered, bespoke product and can sometimes be fine-tuned to suit the specific conditions prevalent at the offshore location and water-depth. We are at an interesting point in the industry where technology, across the offshore energy sector, is enabling the collaboration that market forces demand.

We have already seen plenty of opportunities for renewables and oil and gas to learn from the other. And the collaborative future goes beyond essential support technologies like cabling. Engineers are looking at the possibility of reusing oil and gas infrastructure for offshore wind projects. In the near future, the conversation and the innovation will simply be about offshore energy – and reducing the offshore costs for the benefit of developers and operators alike.

Adapted from a press release by David Bizley

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