The oil and gas market is showing signs of rebounding. Waypoint Leasing noted that positive trend in a study it conducted on the emerging super-medium class of helicopters. But there’s another offshore business emerging that the helicopter industry will probably want to keep an eye on: wind farms.
Waypoint has identified offshore wind farms as a market that could stimulate the helicopter market with demand. Although currently a small market, offshore wind farms are gaining popularity and, with them, a need for transportation to them.
“Wind power is one of the fastest growing forms of energy production, and offshore wind farms are increasingly being supported by helicopters,” Waypoint said. “According to the Westwood Global Energy Group, global offshore wind farm capacity is expected to increase 330% over the next decade, and with it helicopter expenditures for offshore wind farms are projected to grow three times … Westwood has noted that within the offshore wind market, ‘future growth prospects are very positive’ for helicopters.”
Even though using wind energy is not a new concept, the market is now is an emerging opportunity for rotorcraft. Waypoint said many wind farms were originally developed in near-shore areas, readily accessible by boats. Now, as developments move further offshore, helicopters have started to act as the “more economical” transportation platform to and from the installations, Waypoint said. As wind farms grow and are located farther from the shore, helicopters become a more favorable tool.
One way in which helicopters are favorable to boats is the ability to operate in different types of weather. Waypoint gave an example using the calculated probability of a successful mission to an offshore wind installation in the North Sea, comparing the two modes of transportation. According to the lessor, helicopters are estimated to have an 87% probability of access, while vessels only have a 51% probability of access. This difference, according to Waypoint, is “almost exclusively” weather-related. In the summer months, both boats and helicopters find high success rates due to the relatively calm weather conditions. But in the winter, success rates for boats fall due to sea conditions.
“According to Siemens Gamesa, one of the leading builders of wind turbines and wind farms, crew vessel downtime due to weather … is as high as 45% in the installations it has developed, versus 15% for helicopters,” Waypoint said.
European manufacturers Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo have already started capitalizing on wind energy opportunities. Much of the activity is happening in Europe. According to Waypoint, Germany is set to be a leading contributor to the projected increase in helicopter usage. This is because that country’s projects have a high average distance from shore.
Waypoint told R&WI that the U.K. and Sweden, along with Germany, are also the top players in the offshore wind industry. It’s also worth keeping track of activities in Denmark, the Netherlands and Taiwan. China is the world’s largest generator of wind power, Waypoint said, although most of its operations are onshore.
The perfect fit to this type of offshore operation could be found in light twin-engine and medium helicopters. Waypoint said Airbus products are currently the most common in the market — EC135/H135 and EC145/H145 (and the H160, which is still in development). Leonardo is marketing its AW169 and AW139 to wind energy companies. However, Waypoint said regulatory requirements are currently evolving. This means aircraft requirements are subject to change.
Light twins, according to Waypoint, are used for hoist operations, lowering crews onto the turbine from the air. These operations are used for fast troubleshooting and scheduled servicing. Medium helicopters would typically be used to transport crews to service vessels with helipads and to offshore platforms or substations.
Onshore wind operations don’t really require the use of helicopters, and it is unknown how a helicopter might augment the safety and efficiency of onshore wind turbine installations.
“Helicopter support for wind power is still in a nascent stage — the first deliveries of aircraft specifically for wind power support were made in 2015, and it’s estimated that there are no more than 30 aircraft worldwide currently dedicated to providing wind power support,” said Waypoint. “The research noted here, however, makes us confident that there will be at least 100 aircraft servicing these types of installations by 2021.”