Offshore wind opportunities for UK composites

Jeremy Tait of BVG Associates brings readers up-to-date with the vision for the UK offshore wind industry and offers perspectives on what this might mean as a business opportunity for the UK composites sector.

Transporting the large blade structures safely and economically is one challenge facing the wind power industry. (Picture courtesy of REpower.)
Transporting the large blade structures safely and economically is one challenge facing the wind power industry. (Picture courtesy of REpower.)
Blades represent around 20% of the cost of a given turbine. (Picture courtesy of Siemens.)
Blades represent around 20% of the cost of a given turbine. (Picture courtesy of Siemens.)

The €2.2 billion London Array offshore wind farm will start generating power in time for the Olympics and will ultimately be the world's largest offshore wind farm with over 300 turbines. However, this is just one (and nowhere near the largest) of 37 UK offshore sites currently being leased by The Crown Estate to accommodate some 7000 turbines by 2020 with 33 GW generating capacity.

To supply, install and operate thousands of turbines will require a manufacturing and support services industry comparable in scale to that of North Sea oil and gas. Supply chains that could expand to manufacture these turbines already exist in continental Europe, but this market presents an opportunity for UK composites businesses to get involved as they already offer many relevant skills and services.

Key supply opportunities

The technical and volume of supply challenges go far beyond current onshore wind engineering. Annual production for UK offshore installation will reach 1000 turbines by the middle of the decade, and include opportunities for:

  • design and manufacture of composite blades up to 75 m long and 30 tonnes in weight;
  • supply of panels for nacelle covers (weather shielding of turbine machinery) and rotor spinners (hub cover);
  • supply of shear webs, root end platforms and other internal components of blades;
  • tooling for composite blades, covers and associated components;
  • supply of resin materials, glass and carbon fibre and consumables; and
  • aerofoil/blade design.

To ensure maximum UK business involvement, wind supply chain expert help is available free of charge through the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s UK Renewables Service. This can assist businesses to understand the opportunity for them, signpost to sources of further assistance and plan an approach if appropriate, including strategic support under a non-disclosure agreement.

Scale and certainty of the industry

UK offshore wind took a significant step forward on 8 January with the announcement of successful bidders for ‘Round 3’ of offshore development zones issued by The Crown Estate. Nine separate development consortia, including major utilities have signed exclusive Zone Development Agreements and will now take proposals through the planning and consenting phase, with construction in these zones expected to start in 2014.

At the time of the Round 3 announcement Rob Hastings, Director of the Marine Estate, confirmed that The Crown Estate has committed to spend £120 million on development and enabling activity for these new zones, working towards delivery of the 33 GW capacity.

The previous two rounds of offshore wind developments were held in 2001 and 2004. These facilitated 0.7 GW of UK offshore generating capacity operational now, 1.2 GW under construction, 3.6 GW consented, and 2.2 GW submitted for consent. Also, exclusivity agreements have been awarded for a further 6.4 GW capacity in Scottish territorial waters. If all of this is constructed, it equates to nearly 4000 turbines. A current call for extensions to Round 1 and 2 projects should result in a further 1 to 2 GW added in the period 2013-15, plus what results from Round 3.

But allocation of these zones is only one part of the picture. The UK government has demonstrated its commitment to offshore wind through a range of significant policy and infrastructure initiatives. On 7 December, nine European countries signed an agreement to develop an integrated offshore grid in the North and Irish seas. The UK signatory was the Energy and Climate Change Minister Lord Hunt, along with ministers from Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. The proposed grid will serve to augment energy security for the participating countries while making it easier to optimise offshore wind electricity production.

Over recent years government has eased financing of grid connections through allocating offshore grid transmission licenses; provided market development incentives (including the Renewable Obligation market incentives); introduced a new system of development consents for infrastructure projects through the Infrastructure Planning Commission; and backed offshore technology development with £120 million for eligible projects. The UK has installed the most offshore wind capacity in the world, and will retain that top status for many years to come. The big players in the wind industry have certainly seen UK as the most interesting offshore market for quite some time.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council's Global Wind Energy Outlook 2008, the global wind market's compound annual growth rate over the past 25 years has averaged over 23% (28% in the last 10 years). Growth rates well into double digits are predicted for offshore wind up to and beyond 2020.

In terms of market size, UK and European offshore market projections for new installations and re-powering of previous installations indicate a sustained market of 6-8 GW installed per year from the early 2020s to 2040 and beyond (Towards Round Three: Building the Offshore Wind Supply Chain, 2009, BVG Associates for The Crown Estate), which would mean in the region of 1000 turbines per year, or an average install rate of 4 offshore turbines every working day of the year. To place a value on this, current statistics indicate that offshore wind-farms cost in the region of £3 million per MW, of which just over £1 million per MW is for the turbine itself. The European offshore turbine market could therefore be worth £7 billion per year, including around £1.4 billion for blades.

And this is a long-term market. After analysing the long-term economic potential of offshore wind, the European Environment Agency concluded that offshore wind could supply 60% of European electricity demand economically (EEA Technical Report No. 6/2009, Europe's onshore and offshore wind energy potential: an assessment of environmental and economic constraints, ISSN 1725-2237). The Global Wind Energy Council has published projections of global wind energy capacity growth – under its ‘moderate’ growth scenario it projects just over 1800 GW by 2050 (we had 120 GW capacity globally in 2008). For comparison, the International Energy Agency (IEA) Wind Energy Roadmap (prepared for the G8 Copenhagen meetings) targets 12% of global electricity from wind power by 2050, or 2016 GW capacity. The IEA found no fundamental barriers to meeting or exceeding this target.

A substantial UK supply chain is a few years off as yet since components manufactured in the UK account for around 10% of the value of offshore wind farms installed around the UK, but this is rising. The overall market forecast growth is considered technically and economically feasible to achieve (Offshore wind power: big challenge, big opportunity, Carbon Trust, October 2008, and Oceans of Opportunity, EWEA, September 2009), given the strong European supply chains already in place. And there are opportunities of skills transfer from the future decline of North Sea oil and gas sector, business growth from aerospace and other sectors.

The market in numbers
  • The UK offshore areas being leased by The Crown Estate will accommodate some 7000 turbines by 2020, with a forecast of 33 GW generating capacity
  • The Crown Estate has committed to spend £120 million on development and enabling activity for the Round 3 zones.
  • The first Round 3 wind farms should be operational by 2016.
  • Offshore turbine composite blades will be up to 75 m long and 30 tonnes in weight.
  • The global wind market's compound annual growth rate over the past 25 years has averaged over 23% (28% in the last 10 years). Growth rates well into double digits are predicted for offshore wind up to and beyond 2020.
  • UK and European market projections indicate around 1000 offshore turbines per year to beyond 2040. This means 4 offshore turbines installed every working day for 20 years.
  • European offshore turbine market will be worth more than £7 billion per year by 2018, including around £1.4 billion for blades (given an install rate of 6-8 GW per year).

The onshore market will also grow, with an additional 11GW of capacity expected to be installed by 2020 (UK Renewable Energy Strategy, July 2009, Chart 2.4) , this requiring several thousand turbines in addition to those going offshore.

Round 3 timetable to construction

The Crown Estate timetable for development of the Round 3 zones suggests that consents and contracts will be set in place between 2012 and 2013 and that construction could start in 2014. The first Round 3 wind farms should be operational in 2016. Whilst series production of blades for Round 3 zones may not be required before 2015, installation of Round 2 (and its extension) is ramping up in the meantime. The market will soon expand beyond the current capacity for blade manufacture in Europe, especially as blade length extends beyond what can be made in the existing facilities.

Blade technologies and designs

Blades represent around 20% of the cost of a given turbine, approaching £220 000 per MW of generating capacity.

Blades typically use single piece shells of up to 75 m length and over 5 m chord – significantly larger, for example, than the 30 m composite exteriors of the Airbus A350 wing. High stiffness becomes ever more important for larger blades to ensure blades do not hit the tower and to keep the natural frequency away from driving frequencies.

Increasingly, blades use high-performance glass fibre. Nevertheless some suppliers make use of carbon fibre to help reduce blade weight.

Whilst most blades are now made with epoxy, the Danish independent blade maker LM Glasfiber is committed to polyester resin for its lower cost and has taken the technology well beyond what used to be considered achievable.

Blade shells are often made using dry fibre and vacuum assisted resin infusion, cured in-mould with an assembled mass that could be in excess of 30 tonnes for the largest offshore blades.

Opportunities for blade manufacture

The closure of production by Vestas at its UK site on the Isle of Wight should not be seen as an indicator of the future of UK blade making. A major reason for the closure of that site was that it was too small for any serious offshore blade manufacturing facility. Far from withdrawing completely, Vestas is still using the Isle of Wight site. However, the facility for series production of onshore blades a decade ago is now only large enough for some of its research and development into the next generation of offshore blades. New R&D facilities are under construction there, assisted by around £10 million in grants from Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)’s Environment Transformation Fund (ETF) and the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA). Within a few years the number of engineers and technicians will probably exceed the number of staff that used to manufacture blades. One focus will be speeding up and reducing the cost of large blades through advances in materials and automated tape laying – techniques expected to be transferable back to aerospace. In a separate development, Clipper Windpower was awarded £4.4 million in September 2009 from DECC’s ETF. This grant is towards development costs for its ‘Britannia Project’ – a 10 MW offshore turbine with 70 m long blades that Clipper expects to manufacture from late 2011 in a new 4000 m2 manufacturing facility on the Tyne.

These investments open up significant opportunity for UK business to support development and manufacture of the next generation of blades.

The majority of blades for the European market are manufactured in-house by the key turbine suppliers (Siemens, Vestas, REpower). These have manufacturing capacity based in Germany and Denmark that is adequate to supply the short to medium-term market. However, one of the major challenges is transporting such large structures safely and economically. Given the additional risk of currency fluctuations, setting up purpose-built facilities at or near port sites in the UK could become more attractive than long-distance transportation .

Short term opportunities from other components

The short-term market opportunity for UK composites suppliers to gain a foothold in the sector and get closer to turbine manufacturers could perhaps lie in supply of smaller composite components for the 1000 turbines per year. Components include:

  • polyester/glass fibre nacelle covers (providing weatherproofing of the turbine machinery);
  • spinners (the aerodynamic covers for the blade hub);
  • shear webs.

Most of these components are currently subcontracted by the turbine manufacturers. Clearly this becomes more accessible once turbine assembly begins in the UK. Longer term opportunities

For the reasons discussed above, it is hoped that leading turbine companies may move blade production into the UK by 2014. New market entrants could also begin blade production, either making the move from onshore markets to offshore, or through one of the major wind farm contractors in partnership with other composites expertise. But competing with well established turbine players who already have plant working offshore could prove difficult amongst the many other risks of this market.

Support services and consumables

Any of these options could open up significant UK markets for materials and production consumables such as bagging and vacuum materials, process equipment and product/materials testing equipment and services. Tooling and moulds and assembly tooling will be required for blade shells, but also nacelle cover panels, blade shear webs and root end platforms. Challenges of composites for wind

Business challenges are significant: Maintaining year-on-year cost and price reductions to remain competitive, particularly as competing renewable energy sources improve. And industry growth rates far exceed those of aerospace and most other sectors.

The major technical challenges for composites engineers in this field are based around making structures bigger than boats at a cost and speed of product turnaround closer to automotive, and at quality levels approaching that of aerospace for reliability. The cost of manufacture per kilogram of finished composite is around 10 times higher in the aerospace sector compared to wind.

In terms of blade design, optimisation of blade aerodynamics, structural dynamics, mass, strength and cost is a complex exercise reaching to the heart of new wind turbine development. Structural design is closely linked to manufacturing process development. Both fatigue and ultimate loading are critical. The pace of development of new manufacturing methods is accelerating rapidly under the twin challenges of manufacture of even larger blades and much higher quantities.

Some key composites challenges include:

  • Compaction and curing of sections that can reach 100 mm thick at blade roots, reducing time in mould and process automation to reduce manufacturing time/cost and, critically, to improve consistency.
  • Achieving a sharp trailing edge, and protecting this fragile feature during transit. A sharp trailing edge is particularly important near the tip of the blade, where inflow speeds are highest.
  • Achieving effective lightning protection. Systems competing include aluminium mesh, stainless receptors, copper strips and solid aluminium blade tips.
  • Surface coatings can prove problematic and are important for long-term performance. Most commonly, blades are now finished with polyurethane paint systems.
  • Radar mitigation technologies and techniques. Turbines create radar reflections that can interfere with aircraft radar systems, as well as radar shadows beyond the turbines. Blade coatings, software solutions, turbine siting considerations and other approaches are being developed to mitigate this.  
The Crown Estate supply chain events

The Crown Estate is holding 12 UK supply chain events for the offshore wind industry, delivered regionally through a working partnership of The Crown Estate, the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK dates are:

  • Aberdeen, 28 January 2010 (Scottish Enterprise)
  • Inverness, 2 February 2010 (Highlands and Islands Enterprise)
  • Glasgow, 4 February 2010 (Scottish Enterprise)
  • Pembrokeshire, 11 February (Welsh Assembly Government)
  • Chester-Le-Street, 17 February 2010 (One North East)
  • Gatwick, 23 February 2010 (South East England Development Agency and EnviroBusiness)
  • Loughborough, 25 February 2010 (Advantage West Midlands and East Midlands Development Agency)
  • Doncaster, 26 February 2010 (Yorkshire Forward)
  • Lowestoft, 4 March 2010 (East of England Development Agency)
  • Bristol, 9 March 2010 (South West RDA and Regen South West)
  • Liverpool, 11 March 2010 (North West Development Agency and Envirolink Northwest)
  • Belfast, 16 March 2010 (Invest NI)

Other engineering in demand

Composites represent just one aspect. Other engineering skills and services in demand include mechanical and marine test facilities, high reliability large (over 40 tonnes) gearboxes or direct-drive generators, large bearings (eg. 4 m diameter) and up to 10 tonne forgings and 25 tonne castings. Businesses interested in supply of any of these are encouraged to contact DECC’s UK Renewables Service to discuss market opportunities.

Help for businesses

Companies looking to develop into this sector in the UK can benefit from assistance through several government schemes. As well as DECC’s UK Renewables Service, others offering help include The Crown Estate, the Carbon Trust, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, UK Trade and Investment and the British Wind Energy Association. Enabling bodies such as the English Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and Devolved Administrations, eg. Scottish Enterprise and Welsh Assembly, are also operating support programmes and providing funding to companies. DECC’s UK Renewables Service can signpost to the most appropriate provider of support.

In particular, the Crown Estate is running a series of regional Offshore Wind Supply Chain Events from January to March 2010 (see panel). The events are designed as a ‘marketplace’ for all those involved in developing offshore wind sites, creating the opportunity for local and regional companies to do offshore wind business right across the UK.

DECC’s UK Renewables Service

This service helps businesses to assess the potential market for their own products & services and, if appropriate, advise on a strategy to exploit it. It provides business briefing on the offshore wind energy market opportunities and likely supply chain needs. It can make introductions to potential partners or collaborators, and point to the most useful other sources of advice or R&D funding. It can provide assessment of skills or services against known wind sector needs drawing on over two decades experience of working with wind sector supply chains. Where the business case is strong the service can provide strategic analysis and business planning support and coaching on supply chain issues, working under non-disclosure agreements where necessary.