Mike Farish talks to Jonny Lewis of RPS about their offshore renewables and marine energy expertise
The steady growth of the offshore renewables industry has already created an accompanying business sector of companies providing consultancy and support services - especially for early stage procedures involving, for instance, environmental impact assessments and consenting processes. As far as the UK is concerned the impending further expansion of the sector under the Round 3 development proposals can only serve to accentuate this situation.
One organisation that is already well-entrenched in the sector is RPS Group based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The organisation has some 4,500 employees worldwide offering appropriate services in three divisions. These are:
• Environmental Management
• Planning & Development
The energy division involves around 900 of those personnel and is focussed mainly on the oil and gas industries. It also contains a dedicated offshore renewables team which operates out of offices in Woking, Surrey.
The manager of the team is Jonny Lewis, who confirms that RPS has had an interest in the offshore renewables business for around the last decade. If it has remained quite small compared with the rest of Energy Division, Lewis adds, that is because the sector itself is so new. Offshore wind, he points out, has only really existed as an industry around the UK for about ten years. Moreover its wave and tidal counterpart, which Lewis says RPS groups under the single heading ‘marine’, is still at the experimental stage. “The marine energy sector is ten years behind offshore wind,” he states.
Nevertheless there is no shortage of outfits wanting to provide consultancy and support services to the sector and Lewis is aware that even organisations like RPS that have a substantial track record of involvement need to be able to differentiate themselves from competitors. In the case of RPS he says the fact that the company’s roots are in planning support rather than more technology-based consultancy does, perhaps, provide it with a distinguishing characteristic. The provision of relevant ‘front-end’ services along with project management is its natural form of activity - they are not bolted on to a base that involves the provision of any sort of specialist, narrowly-focussed technological support.
Possibly that is one reason why Lewis is not so emphatic about one of the more generally cited characteristics of the offshore renewables industry - its supposed technological synergies with the corresponding oil and gas industries. Obviously, he says, the fact that offshore wind and oil and gas extraction both utilise large structures anchored to the seabed mean that there is a considerable amount of generically similar expertise involved.
But there are also some key differences. One of them, observes Lewis, is in the “scale and number” of installations involved - the oil and gas industries tend to use single, massive one-off rigs, whereas a wind farm will involved multiple identical turbine installations. Another is that a rig is “a single static weight”, whereas in contrast a turbine tower is subject to continuous dynamic loading when it is in operation.
But those technical issues are not the major concern for Lewis and RPS at present. Instead his focus is firmly working with clients in the areas of planning, consenting, permitting and survey design/ management.
Almost by definition those clients will therefore be the owners and operators of the installations concerned - the major utilities. Lewis says that he is particularly keen that RPS’ staff are thoroughly integrated with the client’s personnel at a day-to-day level. Indeed, he states: “We have already started to second staff to our clients’ engineering teams.”
He regards this approach as important, and hopes that this will mitigate previous experiences in the industry that have shown that there can be a “disconnect between planning and engineering” - with much of the knowledge gained and issued identified during the development phase of projects not effectively communicated to the subsequent enginnering phase.
Another point is that even the 10 years or so in which there has been an UK offshore wind industry, the perception of what the key environmental issues are has started to change. Data collected from the first operational UK projects appears to suggest that bird mortality via collisions with turbines may not be as great an issues as once feared. However, whilst this one issue may be decreasing in significance other issues, such as the possible effects on marine life of the underwater noise generated during piling operations is an area of increasing focus and research, especially when the huge planned increase in the scale of the industry via the Round 3 expansion programme is considered.
Even further ahead, of course, will be the potential industrial scale development of wave and tidal generation. Lewis believes that ultimately tidal generation may well prove to be an offshore power source that, whilst not rivalling wind, will still form an important component of any renewable energy portfolio.
Nevertheless the basic point, common in all forms of industrial activity, is that the earlier errors and omissions occur the more they will inevitably cost to put right later on. That is why irrespective of the technology involved it is vital to ensure that relevant specialist expertise informs the whole process right from the beginning.
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