It is one thing to outline an offshore wind farm on paper and determine its potential benefit to the energy matrix once it is in operation, but it is quite another thing to bring that plan to life. The complexity of the logistics and technological requirements – let alone the rapid pace of innovation in turbine design – means that meticulous planning and close cooperation are essential to the construction phase.

For Jason Martin, programme director at East Anglia Offshore Wind (EAOW), success is all about preparation.

"It is important to have a robust planning process for the environmental and engineering issues that will arise," he says. "It is also important to have flexibility to accommodate the challenges that come up with this kind of project. We are trying to predict the unknown."

Martin is responsible for moving this first phase of the East Anglia ONE Offshore Windfarm, which is part of the EAOW project in the southern North Sea, from the planning to the execution phase. One of two programme directors appointed by the parent organisations to lead the joint venture, he is responsible for all aspects of the programme from development through to operation.

EAOW is a joint venture between ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) and Vattenfall Wind Power, created for the development of Zone 5 of The Crown Estate’s Round 3 programme, which covers approximately 6,000km² and at its closest point is 14km from shore. SPR and Vattenfall have the rights to develop up to 7,200MW of wind capacity off the coast of East Anglia, which could provide enough clean energy for over five million homes.

The East Anglia ONE Offshore Windfarm is located in the south of the zone and covers an area of approximately 300km². The closest distance to land is just over 43km from the Suffolk coast. EAOW has been given a grid connection offer from National Grid for 1,200MW at the grid connection point for East Anglia ONE. The first onshore construction on East Anglia ONE is set to begin in 2016, with continuous build programmes beyond 2020. Each project will have an operational life of up to 25 years, with the potential to repower.

"We are about to submit our planning application for our first 1,200MW project, but to ensure we are ready to deliver at the earliest opportunity, we have already commenced our procurement activities," says Martin. "Our understanding of supply chain capability will inform and strengthen our case for a robust final investment decision on the project.

"It is important to have flexibility with this kind of project. We are trying to predict the unknown."

"The zonal process takes two years, and in parallel we have been developing the first project, so overall it takes two and a half years to plan. Then planning consent could take it out to 2014. The first 1,200MW project has significant challenges from its sheer size – we are talking about 200 to 300 turbines over 40km from shore – and there are many logistical and operational issues to overcome. For instance, the number of people living and working offshore will be a bigger challenge than usual."

The flexibility factor

Planning an offshore wind farm takes many years, but technology advances rapidly. Leaving room in the plan to incorporate new technology is a must. For Martin, the decision on technology must be timed to provide the optimum performance-to-cost ratio, as well as to recognise the fast pace of innovation in the industry.

"In offshore wind, new technologies are coming to the fore," he says. "We are seeing jacket technology and gravity base structures more in mid-depth water, so we are looking at those. Manufacturers are also increasing the size of the turbines, so when we make a financial investment decision we want to make the best decision on technology for performance and cost. We are also considering DC connection to the grid, given the distance from the shore."

Technology is vital to any new offshore development, but equally important are the human factors involved. The knowledge and skills of the designers, logistics providers and construction engineers define the project, as does the ability to work collaboratively with suppliers.

"We need people with the right experience," continues Martin. "We want to learn lessons from other projects, good and bad, so that we can better inform our approach to delivery, and it is important that we share our learning with other projects in the ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall portfolios, thus creating virtuous circles of learning. For instance, we have seen a range of projects that used traditional procurement processes, preparation of contracts and tendering, but we are now seeing suppliers involved earlier in the procurement process to ensure that their knowledge and experience can be used to help deliver a safer and more efficient project.

"Standardisation of equipment is also very important as we are doing installations hundreds of times," he adds. "It is, therefore, vital that design and installation techniques are repeatable and predictable. At the moment we are in discussion with tier 1 suppliers and we are seeing good responses, which means that we can understand their issues better and improve how we procure. We need to get supplier engagement right because on future projects we may have multiple suppliers of similar equipment, which can spread risk and address capacity issues."

There is a similar pattern in logistics, where many service providers may be involved.

"Logistics has to be managed well so that we can pick the right equipment and vessels and make sure that the ports are available," says Martin. "We are spending a lot of time on that kind of assessment right now. We must have the right technology and also the right plans to account for the weather and improve our delivery. Everything we have for the construction phase must be proven and reliable. This is not a 1,200MW test site."

The partnership principle

In a joint venture project such as EAOW, the success of any new wind farm is determined as much by the quality of the relationship between the partners as it is by the nuts and bolts of the turbine technology.

"Everything we have for the construction phase must be proven and reliable. This is not a 1,200MW test site."

EAOW can call on a vast amount of experience. SPR is the UK’s largest onshore renewables developer and is part of Iberdrola, the world’s largest renewables developer, which has over 10,000MW of operational wind farms and is due to begin construction on the 500MW West of Duddon Sands offshore wind project. Vattenfall, the Swedish energy utility, is Europe’s fifth-largest generator of electricity and the continent’s largest producer of heat.

Vattenfall currently operates 526MW of onshore wind capacity and 836MW of offshore wind across northern Europe, including the UK’s Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, which was until recently the world’s largest operating offshore wind farm. It is also building eight wind farms in six countries, including the recently completed Ormonde Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea.

Individually, each company has a lot to bring to the table in terms of knowledge and experience. Collectively, they have had to ensure that their complementary skill sets are used to create the best possible synergy. In order to do so, they have formed a partnership that sets the tone for collaborative wind farm development.

"It is very much a partnership with a fully integrated team," says Martin. "There is an even balance of experts in each area and the project is run seamlessly and in a very positive way. For all of us, this project is a chance to build on our experience. We will learn from this project, from our suppliers, from our partners, from other projects that each company has undertaken and from the industry as a whole."