The offshore wind market is building quickly, particularly in Europe. According to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), 2012 was a record year for offshore installations, with 1,166MW of new capacity grid connected, or more than one offshore turbine per business day. This means offshore wind power installations now represent 10% of the annual EU wind energy market, up from 9% in 2011, with further growth predicted in 2013 and 2014.

And, with the EU’s ambitious goals to generate 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, including 40GW of installed offshore capacity, the growth of the continent’s offshore wind sector is speeding up. Indeed, by 2020, the EU is set to reach 4.5GW of new annual offshore wind capacity additions (as opposed to the current 1.8GW that is installed every year), which will be worth more than €14 billion a year (double the 2013 figure of €7 billion).

This development presents huge opportunities for the shipowners, operators and yards involved in the construction and deployment of offshore vessels. Offshore wind farming requires multiple crafts, including wind turbine installation ships (WTIS), crew boats, survey vessels, offshore support vessels, cable-laying vessels, anchor-handling tugs and crew transport ships, among others.

With the wind energy sector developing at such a pace, however, it has been difficult for the shipping industry to keep up. And things are going to get tougher. Not only are the requirements for offshore vessels becoming more complicated, due to having to operate in harsher conditions and be capable of installing larger turbines, the regulations surrounding their design and development are severely underdeveloped, making it difficult for ship industry stakeholders to know exactly which rules they need to comply with.

Oil and gas vessel regulations

It is often assumed that the vessels required to install, operate and maintain offshore wind farms are the same as those used in the offshore oil and gas industry. But, according to Jan Schreiber, ship type expert for offshore service and working vessels at Germanischer Lloyd (GL), this couldn’t be further from the truth. To begin with, offshore wind farm installation is not static.

"In essence, offshore wind farm installation is a cyclic construction operation, whereas drilling or maintenance tends to be a relatively static requirement," Schreiber explains. "Offshore wind vessels need agility to transit long distances from port to offshore wind farm, position rapidly using ‘dynamic positioning’, jack quickly, pre-load the legs quickly (with hydraulics, rather than the water ballast used by oil and gas vessels), and be ready to install turbines, jack-down and move to the next foundation as quickly as possible."

Moreover, because it is uneconomical to mount wind turbine generators on deep-water foundations, offshore wind farms tend to be in much shallower waters than oil fields.

"The industry is faced with a regulatory framework that appears overstrained by the novel nature of offshore wind vessels."

"Jack-ups with solid legs, with their limited maximum water depths, are therefore adequate, whereas oil and gas vessels have lattice legs, which allow working in deeper waters," Schreiber says.

Offshore wind vessels also need to be able to respond to a much larger number of operations than vessels in the oil and gas sector. "There is an intense concentration of marine operations on an offshore wind farm, being carried out in what soon feels like a very ‘confined’ area," Schreiber remarks. "So, at any one time, large vessels can be simultaneously engaged in activities such as foundation installation, turbine installation and commissioning, inter-array and export cable-laying, and substation installation.

"At peak times, there can be several vessels in excess of 10,000GT active in diverse construction operations, and myriad anchor-handling tugs, towing tugs, workboats carrying turbine commissioning personnel, grouting, diving, ecological surveying and guard vessels all within a few kilometres of each other," says Schreiber. "This therefore places heavy demands on care and attention within construction planning, operating ‘permit to work’ areas, enforcing safe traffic segregation with entry and exit channels, and personnel safety induction and training in operating procedures and method statements."

Speed is also of the essence in the offshore wind sector, which means vessels need to be designed – more than in the oil and gas industry – to operate in any and all weather conditions. "Design of safe and robust engineered lift-planning and marine operations is essential to ensure that every activity can continue in the harshest conditions safely possible," Schreiber confirms, adding that rapid handling equipment is also much more important in wind than it is in oil and gas.

"Enhanced levels of design in efficiency and repeatability are needed to ensure that every job is completed on time, and to allow all of the simultaneous operations planning vessel interactions to run like clockwork," he emphasises.

"Where it would be sensible to delay operations by a few minutes or hours if conditions deteriorate slightly when you are carrying out a single operation on a jacket or topside installation in oil and gas, the wind industry must keep up the pace, day in day out, 24/7, in fair and poor weather, to deliver economic installation costs in an industry with relatively small financial margins."

Underdeveloped regulations

Yet, despite the many differences between offshore wind vessels and vessels operating in the oil and gas sector, statutory regulations in the offshore wind sector have not adapted yet. "The industry is faced with a regulatory framework that appears overstrained by the novel nature of vessels operating in the offshore wind industry," Schreiber says.

"Until international standards are finalised, many vessels remain difficult to classify, not necessarily falling under one single rule."

For example, a WTIS is the ultimate multipurpose vessel – a ship, jack-up, heavy lifter and passenger vessel all rolled into one – but there are currently no dedicated regulations governing its design and development. There isn’t even a unified European application of the regulations that already exist in the oil and gas industry. "WTISs are governed by applying the SPS Code and the MODU Code simultaneously with the focus on either regulation differing from flag to flag," Schreiber explains.

Similarly, when it comes to the transportation of industrial personnel, current regulations are not suitable. In fact, offshore personnel – if they are on a ship of 12 or more technicians – are classified as passengers under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, which, Schreiber emphasises, is simply not appropriate: "Offshore personnel are able-bodied with basic safety training, awareness of sea conditions and knowledge of the layout of the ship, routinely carry their own personal protective equipment and should not be regarded as passengers," he says.

So, is anything being done to improve the regulations? According to Schreiber, not enough.

"The development of a dedicated regulatory framework for offshore wind vessels (covering installation vessels, crew boats and categorisation of offshore personnel) at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is proceeding pretty slowly despite the respective efforts of GL and the German maritime industry (VSM)," he says. "And it is hard to say if the IMO work on this framework will be finalised in the next few years. Meanwhile, the industry has to arrange itself in line with the existing regulations to proceed."

Where do we go from here?

Despite the lack of specific offshore wind vessel regulations in Europe, there are rules, created by classification societies such as GL, which ship industry stakeholders can follow.

GL rules, for example, are constantly being fine-tuned to reflect technological advances and range from ‘Rules for Offshore Service Vessels – Hull Structures’ to ‘New Rules for Loading Gears on Seagoing Ships and Offshore Installations’. In May 2012, GL also released the first comprehensive set of classification rules for ‘Crew Boats and Offshore Wind Farm Service Craft’, which were developed by bringing together all GL rules as well as international codes and recommendations, and will contribute to the development of international standards for crew boats.

Of course, until international standards are finalised, many vessels remain difficult to classify, not necessarily falling under one single rule. And, in these situations, ship industry operators should consult the expertise of companies such as GL to help them navigate the seemingly contradictory regulatory environment.

"GL’s Maritime Services is the acknowledged leader in the classification of the latest generation of wind turbine installation vessels, having classed, among many others, the world’s biggest WTIS, the Pacific Orca. With this practical and first-hand insight into the whole range of the industry, GL Group is ideally placed to support its customers, ensuring their projects’ success," Schreiber says.

Looking ahead, the only way regulations will be able to evolve to the point where they fully meet the needs of the fast-growing wind energy sector is through collaboration, Schreiber believes.

"In this young industry, experience is growing every day; for example, with regard to installation practices, required vessel capabilities, weather restrictions and how to stretch them, along with the application of the existing regulatory framework," he says.

"Accordingly, information sharing is vital for all involved parties to ensure they remain up-to-date with the most suitable application of the existing framework, and that a suitable set of regulations is developed that really governs the practices and specific safety issues of this new industry."