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Andrew Thompson

UK & Europe

Andy is market director for offshore and onshore assets in Atkins' Energy business. He has over 20 years' experience in the energy industry, and his career at Atkins has spanned both the offshore wind and nuclear sectors and has covered new build, generation and decommissioning.

Find out more about where I work and any related career opportunities.

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Whilst fixed offshore wind farms are becoming more numerous around the coasts of the UK, Germany and Denmark, they are constrained by one major factor: water depth. For many countries, fixed offshore wind is not an option for generating low CO2 electricity because the continental shelf drops away suddenly and steeply making installation of fixed structures much more difficult than in the waters of northern Europe.

In places where the seabed geography means coastal waters are relatively shallow, the use of conventional techniques to install offshore wind farms are commonplace. Foundations – either monopile or jacket – are embedded directly into the sea floor to provide a stable base on which the turbine sits. Going into deeper water means pushing foundation technology to its very limits as fixed structures are only suitable for water up to 50 metres deep.

Floating wind could be the answer. It marks a huge opportunity for countries like Japan and the USA to generate electricity from offshore wind farms because floating turbines do not require expensive and difficult-to-install subsea infrastructure. Floating structures are tethered to the seabed in order to give stability and reduce drift but there are few restriction on how deep the water can be – in the oil and gas industry we’ve seen floating infrastructure anchored in water over 4,000 feet deep.

What’s more, the potential to be able to fabricate, assemble and commission the turbines onshore saves time by minimising weather delays encountered when installing offshore, as well as saving money by reducing the need to use expensive bespoke installation vessels.

The UK has always been a pioneer in the design and installation of offshore wind farms, and together with Denmark we lead the world in producing energy from offshore wind – currently around 4GW in the UK – which is enough to power 3.1 million homes.

Our engineers are working with partners from around the world, pushing boundaries in offshore technology and drawing on experience gained from 40 years in oil and gas and 20 years in offshore wind to develop the next generation of clean, green energy and this includes floating wind.

Two great examples of how far floating wind has come in recent years are Statoil’s Hywind Demonstrator project in Norway and Principle Power’s WindFloat in Portugal. Atkins has been involved in both projects, which represent two different approaches to floating wind.

Hywind is designed around a spar anchored in 200m of water and is testing how wind and waves affect the floating structure, ahead of a small pilot project. It has already produced some enlightening results about how the design could work commercially and has been instrumental in opening the door for the advancement of this novel technology.

WindFloat uses a catenary mooring system, similar to what you see in many oil and gas designs, and can be fully assembled onshore and towed to its final destination. It has been generating power since 2011 and a number of projects based on this design are in development the world over with much larger turbines than the 2MW prototype.

It might seem counter intuitive to have lots of different options for how floating wind could work, but as it is still a relatively infant technology and there are lots of ideas coming into the market, the competition helps to drive the technology to its greatest potential to realise maximum power and efficiency at the best price.

Engineering is directly helping to influence and improve the commercial viability of this green energy source, transforming the extraordinary possibilities of floating wind and enabling it to compete with more established forms of power generation.

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The UK’s offshore wind industry has a big target to hit of reducing costs by 30% by 2020, based on the delivery of 18GW of offshore wind. Atkins has been working with a number of the industry’s leading players to drive down the cost of offshore wind foundations.

The current major focus of almost everyone involved in the offshore wind industry is how to reduce cost. Driving down the cost of all parts of the sector can involve everything and anything from utilising bigger turbines, synergies in operations and maintenance, and taking a more standardised approach to the design of the structures themselves.

There is also a way in which to help reduce costs, before anything even goes in the ground, and that’s something that we at Atkins have been working on recently.

Burbo offshore wind farm
Burbo offshore wind farm

We’ve got over 40 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and during that time we have developed a lot of knowledge and expertise in how to engineer and design marine structures. The experience that our geoteam (made up of geologists, geophysicists and geotechnical engineers) has gained over the years is now paying huge returns as we look at how to optimise substructure design for the offshore wind industry.

Long before construction begins offshore, the developer has to undertake a series of investigations to find out where the best location of the wind turbine foundations will be, and to ensure that the foundations are designed properly for the ground that they are going in to. This is an important part of reducing overall costs of wind farm development – for example, it can take up to 14 hours and cost up to £75k to drill one borehole to 50m below the seabed, depending on the size of the vessel and specialist equipment needed.

State of the art geophysics and ground modelling software, originally developed in the oil and gas industry, is used by the team to help minimise the number of boreholes that are required. This is done by combining the geophysical and geotechnical data that is taken during the ground investigations at the site and is then used to build a reliable 3D ground model.

Shallow boreholes (to about 25 metres below the sea bed) can be done with smaller vessels and cheaper equipment, and take a much shorter time – for example, a 25 metre deep cone penetration test can be drilled in approximately four hours at a cost of around £10k, rather than £75k for a deep 50 metre borehole.

What this means is that the location of deep and shallow boreholes can be more selectively made, without compromising safety and the reliability of the information, as the offshore wind industry moves into deeper waters. This is one way of using tried and tested technology from the oil and gas industry to inform the cost reduction plans for offshore wind.

Our history of offshore experience is a huge benefit in how we work in renewables at Atkins. Whilst there are definitely significant differences between extracting hydrocarbons and harnessing wind power, there are also similarities and synergies that can be shared between one part of the energy sector and another.

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