- To address the climate crisis, we must switch to renewable energy production.
- The UK Research and Innovation funded New Partnership in Offshore Wind project (NPOW) is an industrial–academic collaboration aiming to solve the energy trilemma in offshore wind technology: cost, security, and sustainability.
- To realise these ambitious goals, NPOW has united leaders in the offshore wind sector with forward-thinking academic institutions.
- NPOW has resulted in an impressive 20 patents, 150 publications, and 80 engagement activities. With further funding secured, NPOW is set to continue driving the future for climate-friendly electricity generation.
The burning of fossil fuels accounts for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. To reach the United Nations’ target of net-zero global emissions by 2050 and avoid the very worst effects of the climate crisis, it is now accepted that we must end our reliance on fossil fuels for energy production. So how do we do this? By investing in greener renewable energy sources (the sun, wind, water, or heat from the earth); energy sources that are clean, sustainable, affordable, and accessible all over the planet.
An offshore solution
In the UK, there are already more offshore wind farms than anywhere else in the world, excluding China. Wind energy is harnessed by placing turbines out at sea where wind speeds are highest, and although wind strength varies by location, this technology has the potential to exceed global electricity use. Here, we explore why the UK has become such a hotspot for these renewables, and how the New Partnership in Offshore Wind (NPOW) project is leading the way in research in this field.
NPOW was one of 11 ‘Prosperity Partnership’ projects granted major funding in 2017 by the UK Research and Innovation agency (UKRI). The project brought together two of the biggest players in offshore wind – Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (SGRE) and Ørsted – partnering them with three world-leading research centres, the University of Sheffield, Durham University, and University of Hull. Led by principal investigators Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu (University of Sheffield) and Dr Arwyn Thomas (SGRE), the vision for this 5.5-year, £7.73 million project was to spearhead investigation into reducing the cost of energy by developing the next generation of offshore wind technology.
NPOW has already resulted in game-changing research targeting specific real-life problems faced by the industry.
The objectives of this UKRI ‘Prosperity Partnership’ project were
• Productivity – through innovative technology that reduces the cost of wind power and drives UK supply chains;
• Resilience – energy security and efficiency; and
• Connectedness – via big data studies and population monitoring.
To realise these ambitious goals, NPOW has united leaders in the offshore wind sector with forward-thinking academic institutions. SGRE are the world’s number one provider of offshore wind power products, but they are also leading the way in service solutions, making clean energy cheaper and more reliable. With its headquarters in Denmark, Ørsted builds and runs offshore wind farms (as well as bioenergy plants and waste-to-energy solutions), employing 5,600 people (including 900 in the UK). The University of Sheffield, a member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of research-led institutions, offers world-class teaching to over 29,000 students from 140 countries. Durham University is an institution with long traditions and modern values, ranked among the top 100 universities worldwide and with a reputation for excellence in research. Research at the University of Hull responds to some of our biggest global challenges, and the university has twice appeared in the Universities UK’s list of ‘100 discoveries by British universities that have changed the world’. In April 2020, CC Jensen were also welcomed to the project as a partner. CC Jensen are a world leader in oil maintenance, ensuring equipment sustainability and reliability, and helping to avoid system breakdown (key to offshore wind technology management).
The significance of this unique collaboration lies in a critical conundrum for the offshore wind industry; a disconnect in the delivery chain between those who make the turbines, and those who operate the wind farms. By working together on this research programme, the collaborators hope to bridge this gap, writing a roadmap for future research and development.
Research to reality
NPOW has already resulted in game-changing research targeting specific real-life problems faced by the industry. The Electrical Machines and Drives Research group at the University of Sheffield worked directly with SGRE to solve manufacturing and design problems caused by the increasing physical size and power rating of offshore wind turbine generators, as well as looking at increasing their performance. They developed an advanced, modular system which improved all these points.
Alongside the generator, the blades are the most important component of wind turbines, and monitoring their structural health is a key part of effectively managing wind farms. However, monitoring systems are often limited because they are retro fitted, using sensors already on the turbines for other purposes. The Dynamic Research Group at the University of Sheffield carried out research with SGRE which responded directly to the need to create automatic, online, and continuous technologies that would detect damage and record its severity.
In a three-way investigation between Durham University, Ørsted, and CC Jensen, Professor Simon Hogg led research into condition monitoring techniques for the diagnosis and detection of faults in turbine parts and lubricants. This is critical if offshore wind is to become an affordable and permanent power source in the UK.
As turbines get larger and blades get longer, manufacture becomes trickier if these installations are to work effectively and survive.
As turbines get larger and blades get longer, manufacture becomes trickier if these installations are to work effectively and survive the rough conditions at sea. In addition, damage to the cables that run between the wind farms and land can result in significant revenue loss. The University of Hull and SGRE have worked together to develop modelling and design techniques that improve blade structures and monitor manufacturing processes. Work done at Durham University included modelling seabed behaviour to understand the risks posed to undersea cables so that they can be better installed.
The energy trilemma
To meet sustainable energy targets and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis we need more green energy, and to do that we need to solve a ‘trilemma’ of issues: cost, security, and sustainability. NPOW research addresses these challenges directly, answering questions that will reduce the levelised cost of electricity from offshore wind and support its growth in the UK (and subsequently worldwide). The collaborators hope that the partnership will act as a blueprint for other joint projects between industry and academia in the field, proving the value of this cooperative approach to research and development.
So what’s next for NPOW? Additional rounds of funding are already secured, with the total now standing at more than £18 million. Further innovation and studies include the provision for PhD scholarships, more research into structural health monitoring, a look at how deep cables should be buried, the manufacture of fibre-optic cables to monitor turbine components, and much more. It is clear that NPOW’s impact on the field has already been extraordinary but has really only just begun.
What innovations brought about by NPOW do you think have had the biggest impact on the sector?
Innovations from modularisation of generators to reduce and monitor the blade structural health have had an impact on the cost of building and maintaining offshore wind parks. Also, the developed techniques on modelling the seabed can provide significant benefit to reduce the risks involved in developing offshore wind farms.
Why do you think collaboration between industry and academia is so important in this field?
It allows academic expertise and knowledge to be directly targeted to real-life problems that industry is facing which will result in critical improvements and efficiencies. In addition, it has nurtured excellent training and development opportunities for many research staff and students, giving them the skills and experience to begin their careers in the offshore wind sector in high-quality positions.
What has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in NPOW?
Seeing new partnerships flourish whilst existing collaborative relationships have developed even further.
With additional funding secured for the project, what are the future plans for NPOW?
The project officially finished at the end of April 2023 but all three Universities have been successful in obtaining further funding for spin-off projects in associated areas. We hope that will help maintain the momentum for further critical developments. In March we held an exposition targeted at funding bodies, policymakers, and other industrialists to stress the need for continued investment in this sector.