4 Challenges to Offshore Wind, Solved with Interdisciplinary Teamwork

In our series on offshore wind development in Oregon, we have been discussing the merits of distributed offshore wind development, an essential clean energy production strategy as we face a future with climate change. Because little to no transmission line construction will be needed for distributed offshore wind farms, they will more efficiently use funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and will cause less onshore environmental degradation.

However, if any offshore wind development is to be successful, it must be designed, operated, and maintained by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers. Experts in marine engineering, material science, electrical engineering, environmental science, and more, each bring a unique perspective to the development of offshore wind.

While offshore wind installations produce energy in the same way as onshore installations (via rotating a magnet in a stationary coil) the environment surrounding the turbines will present a host of new challenges that will require innovative, team-based thinking. Let’s take a closer look at some of those challenges, and the way an interdisciplinary team can help address them.

Team-based Thinking

Creating an interdisciplinary team is a step often overlooked by electric utilities and other industries when they begin a new project. This vital step should not be overlooked because each scientist and engineer on the team will bring their own unique background and perspective to the project. By creating the initial team with representatives from different disciplines, future setbacks can be prevented.

When creating an offshore wind development team, these experts should be included:

  1. Marine engineers, who understand saltwater induced corrosion, vibration induced material fatigue, boat fenders, and the value of implementing real-time solutions.

  2. Material scientists, who understand the effects of temperature extremes on polymers, additives, and compounds.

  3. Electrical engineers, who understand transformer, circuit breaker, cable, and substation applications.

  4. Environmental scientists, who understand the behavior of the natural world in the area that will be disturbed when offshore facilities are installed.

When experts from each of these fields work together to design, operate, and maintain offshore wind development projects, the following challenges can be addressed preemptively.

Challenge #1: Marine Duty Electrical Equipment

One challenge of offshore wind development is the need for sturdy marine duty electrical equipment. This equipment needs to be much more robust than similar equipment located on the plains in Kansas or in parking garages in New York City.

Some components, such as insulated power cables, are quite similar in underground applications and in marine applications. Other components, such as large power transformers, will require solid insulation with encapsulated core and coil assemblies, and plug-jack connectors rather than bushings. All components will need to be encapsulated, ruggedized, and minimized.

Electrical and marine engineers may have a good idea of the best materials to use in a marine environment; however, a material scientist may provide insightful material recommendations that would otherwise be overlooked.

Challenge #2: Saltwater Induced Corrosion

Electrical engineers recognize that saltwater induced corrosion is an issue when electrical components are installed within a mile or two of the oceans. Dense fog/condensation, varying temperatures, sunlight, capillary action, and cathodic action combine to reduce the service life of components installed in marine environments unless corrosion inhibitors and ultraviolet resistant additives are designed into first generation components.

Marine engineers have real world experience dealing with saltwater induced corrosion. As members of the interdisciplinary team, marine engineers and material scientists can help to ensure that the correct materials are used the first time components are installed, rather than after a failure occurs.

Challenge #3: Vibration Induced Material Fatigue

Electrical engineers understand that cable grips, expansion joints, and strain relief are essential to minimize vibration induced material fatigue. Material scientists have the knowledge needed to assess the robustness of copper cables and polymer insulation to hostile environments caused by salt water, wave action, solar radiation, and inclement weather. Utilizing the correct materials at the onset will prevent material fatigue.

Challenge #4: Environmental Concerns

Environmentalists will undoubtedly challenge each and every offshore wind farm installation, and that’s a good thing. Industrial giants have wreaked havoc on planet earth with various projects that didn’t consider environmental degradation under after the damage was done, from leaded gasoline to superfund sites. Offshore wind development should not be listed among those detrimental projects.

When offshore wind farms and associated infrastructure, such as upgraded ports, are constructed, some environmental damage is inevitable. However, as part of the interdisciplinary team, environmental scientists can ensure that offshore wind farms are compatible with animal migration patterns, including whales and seabirds. They can assess potential damage to the environment before an environmental impact assessment is performed and help design a less invasive wind farm from the start.

Additionally, it is important to note here that distributed offshore wind farms will result in less onshore environmental degradation because few, if any, new transmission lines will need to be constructed. Rather, distributed offshore wind will rely on existing transmission lines along existing right of ways.

Team Members Bring Unique Experiences

In addition to addressing each of the challenges listed above, interdisciplinary team members will be able to provide perspectives from within their industry that will impact the design, operation, maintenance, and bottom line of any offshore wind development project.

For example, electrical engineers are accustomed to designing power delivery systems that continue to function after a single component fails, and therefore may take weeks to complete repairs that are “as good as new.” However, in a marine environment, repairs must be completed as soon as possible; marine engineers understand the need to implement real-time solutions when failures occur, and will bring a sense of urgency to the team.

A Diverse Team Provides Solutions

By developing a diverse team with expertise in multiple disciplines from the beginning of a new offshore wind development project, challenges that may arise in later phases of construction can be addressed and mitigated early on. This will lead to a more efficient use of time and resources, better use of specific materials, and a less significant impact on the environment.

Having worked for electric utilities, coal mining companies, dredging companies, and power production companies, Prescient’s staff understands the many things that can go wrong within a new energy project. Contact us to learn more about our innovative solutions for the next generation electric energy grid.

This article was written in collaboration with Prescient's Lead Editor Alyssa Sleva-Horine.

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