Christof Huss, head of operations for DanTysk wind farm Credit: CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS/DPA
- Emily Gosden, Energy Editor
24 September 2016 • 2:13pm
The DanTysk OAP boasts most of the amenities you’d expect from a brand new hotel. Its 50 rooms are equipped with flat-screen televisions, desks and en-suite showers. There’s a gym, games room and library, free Wi-Fi and a restaurant serving freshly cooked meals three times a day.
The thing that really sets it apart, though? “The view,” says Robert Neumann, one of the first to stay here. The hotel stands in the middle of the North Sea.
The nearest land, the German island of Sylt, is more than 40 miles away. Look East, and there’s an uninterrupted expanse of water as far as the eye can see. To the North, South and West stand the 80 wind turbines of Vattenfall’s DanTysk offshore wind farm – the reason the Swedish state-owned energy giant has just spent €100m (£86m) building this, its first offshore accommodation platform.
With bigger wind farms being built further offshore, ferrying maintenance crews to and fro every day no longer makes sense. Developers such as Vattenfall are turning to offshore accommodation to cut their costs.
The company’s service engineers will spend two or three weeks at a time here, working 12-hour shifts maintaining the turbines of DanTysk and, in due course, Sandbank, a 72-turbine project under construction to the West.
Neumann, the platform’s technician, has been here 10 days so far. As well as the sea view, he says, there is wildlife to watch. “We have some whales, dolphins here, we have seals,” he says, “and a lot of fish.” Can they catch them? “Not officially.”
I was a seaman, I spent usually four or five months at sea. So for me, it’s now two weeks, it’s perfect.Robert Neumann, platform technician
The accommodation may have all mod cons, but the offshore experience is far from a holiday. To be allowed to work here, you have to pass a rigorous three-hour fitness test, to minimise the chances you’ll require an on-site doctor. Alcohol is strictly forbidden (though smoking is permitted, and popular). The cabins are fitted with single beds and are not exactly spacious.
If you want to wander the decks, you’ll need a hard hat and sturdy safety boots. And if you want to leave? That’s a three-hour boat journey to the nearest port, Esbjerg in Denmark – or, if you’re lucky, a half-hour helicopter journey wearing a full North Sea immersion suit.
The platform’s DVD library – full of action films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Fast & Furious 7 and, fittingly, In The Heart of the Sea – hints at the macho environment. Of the 37 people staying here when The Sunday Telegraph visits, just five are female.
“We have a very classical distribution at the moment,” jokes Christof Huss, a burly German who heads up operations for DanTysk. “Everybody who is working in the kitchen is female, everybody who is not in the kitchen is male.”
A cabin on the DanTysk accommodation platform Credit: CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS/EPA
He is at pains to stress, however, that’s not always the case and that he is “proud” of the senior women who work here at times, including one who serves two- week stints in a management position.
Still, he says, “it’s not a job for everybody”. “You have to be able to survive here. If you are in a position where you have to give orders, where you are living here and your space where you can escape is limited to 11 square metres, and that’s for the next two weeks, and then you are in a situation where, by tradition or whatever, the reality shows that it’s a more male-dominated society… you have [to have] a certain self-esteem to do that.”
Some clearly embrace the lifestyle. “I like this job,” says Neumann. “I’m not missing my family so much – I am used to it. I was a seaman, I spent usually four or five months at sea. So for me, it’s now two weeks, it’s perfect.” Surely he must get bored? “No. I like the sea.”
While Vattenfall is keen to show off its new platform, those in the oil and gas industry might well wonder what all the fuss is about. For decades, North Sea workers have been doing two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off, living on accommodation platforms.
The DanTysk accommodation platform being installed Credit: Ulrich Wirrwa
According to Oil & Gas UK, 28,000 North Sea workers each spent 100 or more nights offshore last year. But now, the rapid expansion of offshore wind in Europe is heralding the start of a whole new generation of offshore workers. “For wind, it’s the first of it’s kind,” says Gunnar Groebler, head of Vattenfall’s wind division.
Denmark’s Dong Energy built a smaller offshore accommodation platform a few years ago at the nearby Horns Rev 2 wind farm, which is only used in summer, but the DanTysk platform is equipped for year-round use, even when the worst storms hit. It desalinates its own drinking water, has a sewage-processing plant, and stores enough supplies to be self-sufficient for up to three weeks at a time.
“Is it the last of its kind? I don’t think so,” says Groebler. “We have had a lot of discussions with service providers who want to offer the concept to others, especially in the UK, as the projects that are up for the next [subsidy contracts] are even further offshore.” Vattenfall itself is in the early stages of developing plans for giant offshore wind farms off East Anglia, and Groebler says it will consider using platforms there.
There is a tipping point: the further you get out, the more it makes senseGunnar Groebler, Vattenfall
The economic rationale is a trade-off between shipping out the crew from the mainland every day by boat – helicopter is too expensive to be used for all trips – or building an expensive platform but having the crew just half a mile from the nearest turbine. “There is a tipping point: the further you get out, the more it makes sense,” he says. Not only does using the platform avoid the travel time, but “if you’re sailing out with a crew transfer vessel and have a bit of rough weather, you need time to recover once you reach the turbine”, says Groebler.
Not being cut off from the turbines by bad weather also reduces the time a faulty turbine is out of action.
While he won’t disclose the numbers, Groebler says the platform gives “a clear cost advantage”.
Cost advantages are crucial for an industry facing increasing competition to the secure subsidy contracts on which it depends. Political pressure to reduce consumer bills is rising across Europe; even Denmark, where Vattenfall just set a new record low subsidy price, is raising questions about the costs.
Living in close proximity to the wind farm cuts travel time for maintenance crews Credit: EPA
Groebler says it is clearly in developers’ interests to cut their reliance on subsidies and so their political vulnerability. “This is a pain in the neck, if you are fully dependent on a political process,” he says.
Headline costs for new offshore wind projects have roughly halved in recent years, thanks to a combination of far bigger, more powerful turbines and growing economies of scale.
But there is still further to go. Just last week, Dong announced it would use a new fleet of Rolls-Royce-designed “service operational vessels”, each accommodating up to 60 crew and technicians offshore for up to 28 days at a time, to maintain the new wind farms it is building off the east coast of England.
Accommodation vessels, or “floatels” – another staple of the oil industry – are already widely used on a temporary basis in the construction of offshore wind farms, but Dong’s plans to use them continuously will be a first for the UK.
The turbines of the DanTysk wind farm Credit: Ulrich Wirrwa
Dong says its “state-of-the-art” vessels will be more than just hotels, also transporting equipment out to the wind farms. Unlike the fixed platform, they will also be able to move from turbine to turbine, letting technicians walk straight off the deck to work. Dong says it believes they will “set the blueprint for the way in which offshore wind farms are maintained in future, offering significant safety and operational efficiency benefits”.
The relative merits of floatel vs platform remain a matter of debate for the industry: the upfront cost of a platform is greater than hiring a floatel, but the need for vessels to return to port regularly for maintenance means they rack up costs in the long run.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” says Huss. Having stable ground to come home to in the evening instead of “rolling in the waves” on a floatel is a popular choice with workers, says Groebler. After all, he explains, there’s one key advantage. “You can play pool on an accommodation platform.”
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