Cleantech Meets Heavy Steel

I had a fascinating presentation today from John Robertson, managing director of BiFab, one of the first movers in offshore wind platform fabrications.  They just rolled off doing a 31 unit, 14 month project for Vattenfall’s 150 MW Ormonde project (which still counts as large in the offshore wind business), and built the original Beatrice prototype jackets.  They also sold 15% of the company to offshore wind developer SSE, essentially a vertical integration highlighting just how fragile the supply chain actually is.

There are three types of offshore mounting systems for wind 1) monopile (think big cylinder), 2) jacket, or 3) floating (of which the only prototyped system, though not yet at full scale,  is a spar (floating upright hollow cylinder).  Essentially those are in order of depth capability, with the 50-200 foot range the province of jackets, shallower water for monopiles, and at the 150 foot+ range a floating system is needed.

And right now we’re in the offshore wind’s infancy, still building one-offs.  At scale, this has to change. The wind turbine industry is already able to product final turbine assemblies within days to weeks. The rest of the supply chain for offshore is going to have to match that if the industry is to deliver the scale in the pipeline.

BiFab for example, builds jacket type mounting systems (basically four legged lattice tower) in Scotland for the offshore wind market in the North Sea.  Which sounds like a totally boring exercise.  Until you realize the following facts:

  • The offshore wind development pipeline in the UK is measured in multi-gigawatts, equaling 1,000+ plus platforms over the next 10 years.  Forget transmission constraints.  Just getting that much steel in the water fast enough at a low enough cost is an almost ungodly constraint.
  • The platforms are smaller, lighter, and have to cost much, much less, and be installed in a fraction of the time that the oil & gas industry has traditionally done.
  • Basically the fabrication shop has to learn to cookie cutter a product, not fabricate a series of one-off. Think order of magnitude three per week from a facility.  Nobody in the marine industry has done that since the Liberty Ships in World War II.  Nobody.  This is closer to manufacturing transformers or aircraft than it is shipbuilding or offshore construction except the end result has to in 50-150 feet of salt water.

I mean, when was the last time you heard a fabricator talking about manufacturing process technology, scale up and licensing designs.  They assemble steel.  Yet in offshore wind, that isn’t going to work.  Heavy steel has to meet cleantech for heavy steel to find new markets, and cleantech to reach scale.  It will be an interesting experience.

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