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London Array – Getting Up Close and Personal to Offshore Wind

Think a fifty-year Crown Estate lease is a long time? Try just fifty minutes on the foredeck of the Smeaton Array, a high-speed ship operating in a strong swell, at the foot of a 3.6-MW spinning Siemens offshore wind turbine unit. In the snow.

That’s where I found myself on Wednesday last week, following an invitation to join the team on-site at London Array.  And despite the changeable weather, Offshore Site Manager, Stephen Reynolds and Skipper, Neill Austen, were in good spirits.

Something no doubt helped by confirmation earlier in March that the site has now surpassed the generating capacity of nearby Greater Gabbard, to become the world’s largest offshore wind farm.

In pure numbers alone, that means that in the past seven days the site was producing roughly 41 GWh, with a peak of nearly 11 GWh in a single 24-hour period.

Impressive statistics.  All the more so given that 143 turbines had been commissioned, and a total of 166 units energised, by the end of last week.

In fact, the success to date demonstrates the very real potential and viability of this high risk/return growth area of the market.

And those risks — be under no illusion — really are high.

Indeed, while London Array has quickly become the poster child of the offshore wind market, installing the last of the 175 turbines on schedule and (just!) before the 2013 New Year celebrations began, the project has not quite been problem free.

Realistically, no project of this size ever could be.

For London Array, that meant an expensive (and high profile) conversation with the City, following cable damage incurred almost exactly one year ago — on 16th March 2012.

And since the project was already beginning to export electricity to the grid, the final bill is still open for debate.  However, following a quick and competitive tender process, the cable repair was completed in just 12 weeks.

Irrespective, work on the site has continued apace.  And it was only recently that many of the crew transfer vessels were moved off a pattern of 24/7 operations.

Evidently then, there’s change afoot.

There may still be a handful of turbines to commission and energise but given the hurdles that have already been overcome, the view from Stephen is that’s comparatively straightforward.  And the handover by the construction crew to the 90-strong operations and maintenance unit is already underway.

The focus then, is already starting to shift.

Make no mistake, the first phase of this particular project has been a herculean task.  A challenge that’s thrown together three very different project partners who’ve had to work together for a common goal.  It has pushed individuals out of their comfort zones and walked the tightrope of balancing investor expectations with the needs and concerns of the local community.

But the thing is, for a project of this size and scale, this really is just the start.

The development team already have consent conditions in place on the second phase — following concerns regarding the migratory habits of the Red Throated Diver — and a report that provides further detail on the matter is now with DECC.

And then there’s the challenge of the existing units, that have only now started long term operation on the main site.  This winter has provided the first test and there’ll be plenty more inclement English weather to come.

Indeed, with two 6-MW super structures already undergoing early-stage testing at Gunfleet Sands, questions regarding re-powering and operational upgrades won’t be far from many minds.  And while the operational lifecycle of the turbines is widely expected to be anywhere between 20 – 25 years, that clock continues to tick.

Since initial consent in December 2006, London Array has moved quickly to develop, construct and set spinning a flagship wind industry initiative.

Its future success depends as much on the site decisions made now and over the next five, ten and fifteen years, as it does on those already made. One to watch.

This article was originally published on A Word About Wind and was republished with permission.

Lead image via London Array Limited

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