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Offshore news

No service without ships

The repair and maintenance of offshore wind farms is turning into a lucrative niche for ship owners and ports. In Germany the market is often dominated by the European competition.

Operators of offshore wind farms never rest. Whilst on land the technicians can comfortably drive to the turbines in the repair van for annual maintenance or to fix problems, getting to offshore installations is much more difficult – and more expensive. The available options are hotel ships, service platforms that are occupied year-round; mother ships with mobile units; or a daily trip between port and wind farm with a crew transfer vessel (CTV). While the cost influences the choice of transport methode, it is important to avoid the risk of saving money in the wrong places. “One shouldn’t look just at the costs, but also at how the workers can be more effective. The cost of service and maintenance is much greater than is usually expected, and it is often underestimated”, says Claus Burkhardt, Manager of EWE Offshore Service & Solutions GmbH. He knows what he’s talking about, having gained his experience on the offshore wind farm, alpha venus.

Until now, maintenance missions to alpha ventus have been handled by helicopter or CTV out of the harbour in Norddeich, Germany. This works fine for normal operations, but not for the annual overhaul, for which nine technicians are needed on each turbine. To make use of synergy effects and keep costs under control through greater efficiency, for this summer’s maintenance a hotel ship will be stationed between the 12 Areva and REpower turbines in the test wind farm. “We want to optimize the operations and the costs and make better use of the narrow weather windows. There is no reason why work on different turbines can’t take place in parallel. We would like to get all the workers involved to the wind farm at the same time, and are thinking of chartering a hotel ship for that purpose”, explains Wilfried Hube, General Manager of the company operating alpha ventus.

That may sound a bit excessive for just 12 turbines, but could make financial sense for the operators. Besides the turbine technicians, the personnel responsible for inspecting the foundations and the wind farm’s transformer platform also need to be housed and transported. With a hotel ship, many tasks could be carried out simultaneously. “This could be a cheaper option, because the port transfer alone takes up four hours a day”, says Hube.

Charter prices are a hurdle

Whilst floating hotels are already establishing themselves as a solution during the construction phase, this is not yet the case for annual maintenance. “Requests for service and maintenance jobs are slowly starting to come in, because a hotel ship can be more efficient than daily transfers. Not only due to the time lost in transport, but also because not every port base offers enough accommodation on the right terms”, says Matthias Mroß, General Manager of German Renewables Shipbrokers. Depending on the length of the charter, the size and the level of comfort, accommodation on a hotel ship costs between € 300 and € 400 per person per day without food. But when one factors in the time lost in transfers, the weather risk and the cost of fuel and accommodation onshore, this figure starts to look economic.

“The logistics strategies for large maintenance operations involving many workers are often not very well developed”, says Mroß. Turbine manufacturers use the concept of a mother ship with 50 to 60 workers and crew-boats to deploy them. But there are only a limited number of such ships being built or refitted. Because they cost a lot, ship owners need long-term charter agreements. The same is true for hotel ships. They have to meet high technical standards and be comfortable but also cheap. “Because such requirements are hard to fulfil we are probably heading for interim solutions”, predicts Mroß.

Good business

In Germany, the neighbours from Holland, the UK and Scandinavia are doing good business with ships. Without them, the German offshore wind industry would be in dire straits. There are currently around 100 specialized ships on the European market that are adapted for service and maintenance to a greater or lesser extent. These include construction ships, cablelaying ships and maritime taxis for crew transfers.

One company that plans to profit from the growing market is the Dutch SeaZip Offshore Service. In March it put into operation its first two 25 metre long catamarans, SeaZip 1 and 2, and chartered them, with sailing crews, to the Bard Group until the end of 2013. The ships, which can race along at 26 knots, were built by the Damen Shipyards in Holland. “The ships sail under the Dutch flag, are certified by Germanische Lloyd (GL) and are comparable in standard with those used in the oil and gas industry”, says Jan Reier Arends, owner and Manager of SeaZip.

Although the charter contracts for such ships only run for six to twelve months, he thinks this is enough time to justify the expenditure. “Investors would prefer to see longer charter contracts, but that’s not really possible. We are also holding intense discussions with other German offshore wind farm operators and, together with partners, want to increase our fleet by three more ships”, says Arends.

WindMW GmbH came to a similar conclusion and bought a fibreglass SWATH-Tender (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) from the Norwegian shipyard Maloy for € 9 million. Since April, the 30 m SWATH, which is capable of 25 knots, has been in use for crew changes on the installation ships in the Meerwind Süd/Ost wind farm. It will later be based on Helgoland and used to transport service technicians.

The maintenance crew requires comfort at sea. hotel ships like Blue Water shipping’s ocean atlantic certainly provide it.

Regulations put the brakes on

At the German ports the service and maintenance ship business is on the back burner. The Germans are often unable to keep up with the competition’s prices due to the regulatory framework: ship construction has to be based on the regulations for passenger ships. “The big hurdle in Germany is the high construction and equipment requirements for ships sailing under the German flag. For these work ships with a gross tonnage under 500 t, there are no unified European safety requirements, and other countries are better at supporting their industry”, com- plains Wolfgang Hintzsche of the German Shipowners’ Association Verband Deutscher Reeder (VDR).

The VDR’s efforts with international associations to draft common safety standards for the EU have borne no fruit to date. Instead, UK repair ships which are built according to the workboat code of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), for example, are granted equivalence according to EU regulations. Although this code is not recognized in Germany for safety reasons, flying a European flag is enough to allow them to operate in German waters. “One should take a closer look at some of the sub-standard ships sailing in the German North Sea”, advises Hintzsche.

DBB Jack-up Services A/S has bigger, more seaworthy plans. The Danes want to be the first to enter the market with a special jack-up fleet for replacing large components. They have commissioned Nordic Yards to build a special Wind Turbine Service Jack-up Vessel costing an estimated € 70 million with an option on three further vessels. Thorsten Jalk, CEO of DBB, is clear about the company’s ambitions: “As one of the leading providers of services in the offshore wind industry, we require ships that can work on the high sea even in the harshest conditions”. The first vessel, 80 m long and 32 m wide, can operate in depths of 45 m and should come onto the market in 2014. Whether the industry will have got used to the charter rates by then or will search for cheaper alternatives remains an interesting question.

Torsten Thomas

Source: Offshore Wind Industry | issue 2013 | No. 02

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