E.ON UK has successfully seen its Robin Rigg wind farm through design and construction to final operation. Senior project manager Ian Johnson talks to Andrew Pelis about some of the many challenges and rewards involved in the project.
The wind farm revolution is well and truly gathering pace in the UK, but for E.ON Climate & Renewables UK, the Robin Rigg project has been anything but a breeze.
Plans were in place and the design phase for Robin Rigg was complete in 2005, when a paradigm shift in the contracting of wind farms meant that the main contractor in place at the time decided to pull out of the project at the eleventh hour.
“The plan had been to construct the site on a turnkey basis, using the EPC [engineering, procurement and construction] method,” explains Ian Johnson, senior project manager for Robin Rigg. “By the summer of 2005, we were ready to sign contracts when a market change saw the contractors decide that EPC was no longer the right route for them. This left us with a big problem, as no-one in the market wanted to do a project that way any more.”
The solution required a radical re-think in strategy and for E.ON it was a difficult induction into the offshore renewable energy market. “We had invested a lot of time, money and resources into this for an EPC contract and then had to start again from scratch. We decided to create a multi-lot package and offer contracts on an individual process basis, which required us to take on much more risk. By early 2006, we began to place the first new contracts,” Johnson explains.
Robin Rigg is the third wind farm project for E.ON in the UK, following a pilot project at Blyth, Northumberland and Scroby Sands, near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. The farm is located on the Solway Firth, on the border between England and Scotland, and lies 11 kilometres off the Scottish coastline and 13 kilometres off the Cumbrian shore.
The plan to build two wind farms was originally proposed in the early 2000s; and consent was given to a joint venture partnership between TXU and Babcock and Brown. However, plans were compromised when TXU went into administration and Babcock and Brown, landed with the prospect of financing the project, decided to sell it to E.ON in 2003.
“They had received consent but there were lots of engineering and procurement designs to complete when we took over in 2004,” Johnson admits. “Under the terms of the consent we were limited to building a maximum 30 turbines on each farm which gave us no scope to increase the capacity. There were further limitations on the height of the turbine blades but there was a clear strategic fit with E.ON’s development and construction of offshore wind farms as part of our renewable energy plan.”
The consent gives E.ON the capacity to erect 60 three megawatt turbines (30 per wind farm) totalling 180 megawatts, which can service up to 117,000 homes and offset 220,000 tonnes of carbon per year.
Given E.ON’s lack of experience in offshore activities, the engineering process provided a real challenge and Johnson says that this led to work being split, with E.ON involving external suppliers like KBR for non-core capabilities such as design philosophy for offshore structures.
“We started in mid-2006 with construction of the onshore substation, as it was critical to be connected to the grid system before the turbines went up,” states Johnson. “By the end of the year we had placed contracts for the offshore foundations and turbines and after a delay (due to the need for a transportation vessel) work on the foundation began around Christmas of 2007.”
The logistics proved a challenge, not least given the inclement weather—of course, wind is a necessary feature of any wind farm, but bad weather caused considerable delays, on one occasion an unbroken run of 34 days’ inactivity.
Initially items were delivered on a just-in-time basis but practicalities altered this format, with turbine manufacturer Vestas able to use the Harland and Wolff facility in Belfast for storage of equipment and the turbines.
“Aside from the weather, our primary challenge has been getting the right vessels at the right time. When we were contracting for Robin Rigg, there were very few suitable vessels available in the market, although that is not necessarily the case today, given the drive for more wind farms. We actually ended up hiring our own vessel to help mitigate potential delays,” Johnson comments.
Although wind farms produce clean energy, there are still environmental considerations that have to be met in the construction phase and Johnson says that the building of Robin Rigg was overseen by the Robin Rigg Monitoring Group, which comprised a number of stakeholders including the Scottish Executive, Scottish National Heritage and the RSPB.
At its peak, E.ON’s first multi contract offshore project employed in excess of 200 people, with a dozen or so from the owners and the majority made up of various contractors and wind farm experts from Vestas and other key contractors. Local companies benefited from the project, supplying equipment, materials and boats. To this day, a boat from the locality is used to transport the remaining 40 technicians to the site, as well as to monitor environmental impact.
Upon reflection, Johnson says that Robin Rigg has been a huge learning curve, which he hopes will prove invaluable experience for future projects. “We are a Europe-wide energy company and have a focus now on offshore projects. Our offshore wind farm projects are centralised in Dusseldorf but here in the UK we are in the construction phase of the London Array project.”
The London Array wind farm is a joint venture being developed by three international companies with renewable energy interests. The location for the wind farm is the outer Thames Estuary, one of the three strategic areas the UK’s government identified for their Round 2 offshore wind farm developments.
Unquestionably, the Robin Rigg project has given Johnson and his team a helping hand for future work. “We have the processes in place for knowledge transfer and our project set-up is now carried out using a different approach,” he explains. “We talk to contractors about the changes in the industry and we recognise that we have to understand the tone in the market and what people are comfortable with.”
Robin Rigg was officially taken over and became operational this April. It has been built on sea bed with a 22-year lease from the Crown Estate but Johnson says that the farm itself is built to allow a much longer life span. “Robin Rigg gives E.ON the ability to combat climate change with cheaper, clean energy while offering a diverse supply,” he summarises.