The offshore industry is heavily dependent on the well-being of the oil and gas sector, and with oil prices remaining below $50/bbl, the offshore market is largely full of doom and gloom. However, there is one sector for which headlines in November have been positive: offshore wind. Could this renewable energy source provide some owners with an alternative market and an opportunity for specialisation?

Something In The Wind

As the Graph of the Month illustrates, historically offshore wind farms have been located close to shore in shallow waters of less than 50m. Today, the industry appears to offer potential for the offshore market as both approved and proposed projects are getting increasingly deeper and further from shore. Following a slowdown in investment due to regulatory instability in key markets such as UK and Germany, future final investment decisions (FIDs) have been looking less certain. Indeed, in 2014 the number of turbine installations in the UK fell by 35% during the first six months of the year in comparison to 2013. Yet, November’s headlines might indicate a wind of change. Statoil has reached a FID for a pilot floating wind farm, Hywind, moored to the sea floor offshore Scotland. The departure from traditional fixed turbines opens up the opportunity for more ambitious, deepwater projects. DONG also made a FID regarding the Walney Extension in the Irish Sea, which will become the largest fixed offshore wind farm yet.

Vessel Requirements

The installation of offshore wind farms requires the use of number of construction vessels, particularly cablelay and heavylift units. Estimates suggest that around 100km of cabling is required per wind farm. However, self-elevating designs currently dominate the installation phase due to their stability. Although most existing self-elevating platforms can be used, an increasing number of units are specifically designed for operation within the wind sector: the wind turbine installation (WTI) fleet grew at a CAGR of 11% over 2005-2014. A peak in WTI vessel orders in 2010 following a third licensing round in the UK resulted in a record number of 10 units entering the fleet in 2012. As of November 2015, 31 WTI vessels were active globally. As wind farms move further from shore into rougher waters, requirement for larger WTI vessels is likely to increase.

An Alternative Market?

On the other hand, the maintenance phase of offshore wind farms has the ability to absorb more traditional vessels in the North Sea. A handful of PSVs and MSVs have been converted into accommodation vessels for maintenance personnel. However, in reality the main demand is for small crew transfer vessels, usually with a LOA of <25m. The crew transfer fleet has grown substantially from approximately 40 units in 2010 to over 200 in 2015.

For now, offshore wind remains a niche market rather than a viable alternative for the mainstream fleet. Future growth is largely dependent on how attitudes of governments and private companies will evolve. However, technological advances, such as Statoil’s floating wind farm, at least push the industry in a helpful direction for offshore as a whole.