In the first week of October, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and the University of Hull announced that they had teamed up to launch a pioneering £2 million offshore wind operations and maintenance (O&M) centre of excellence.

What are the key objectives of the Centre and what are the main themes of the work it will carry out? What are the main expected outputs? And in what way will the work carried out at the Centre be of use to the wider offshore wind O&M sector?

The Centre will be based initially within the University of Hull and will comprise a staff made up of researchers from the ORE Catapult specialist innovation team and the University of Hull who will collaborate on a number of operations and maintenance research projects and programmes.

As Chris Hill, Operational Performance Director at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, explains, the key objectives of the Centre are to improve O&M activities throughout the offshore wind sector, to reduce the costs associated with these O&M activities - and to establish the Humber region as the UK's main centre of excellence for offshore wind O&M activities.

He reveals that the Centre also aims to enable businesses, especially SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises), to 'engage with universities, ORE Catapult and others' in innovation through what he describes as the 'Core Work Programme' - in the process helping them to 'access funding sources and participate in collaborative projects.' The first task in this work programme will be for the Centre's staff to engage with the offshore wind energy industry - as well as the broader supply chain - in an effort to develop a number of feasibility studies and define a comprehensive roadmap for O&M research and development.

According to Hill, the initial focus of the research work carried out at the Centre will be devoted to efforts to develop a research and development (R&D) roadmap for operations and maintenance activities in offshore wind - and also to look to develop research, development and innovation programmes broadly in a number of key areas. These include 'human free' (or automated and remote) O & M, human factors in O & M and data driven O & M decision making - as well as offshore logistics, planning and risk; lifetime asset management and whole life supply chain modelling.

"Much of the projects and research will be carried out with the Catapult and University research team, but we are also conscious of skills that exist outside of both the Catapult and the University, therefore we will engage with third parties across the UK as appropriate," says Hill.

"It is intended that this programme meets the requirements of industry both large and small, including companies active in the Humber region such as Dong, Siemens, Innogy and Statkraft among others - but also wider industry and SMEs," he adds.

In a press release timed to coincide with the announcement, Dr David Richards, Pro vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of Hull, added that the new collaboration represented a 'step change' for both the Humber region 'and the UK offshore wind industry as a whole.'

Research into the ongoing development of the domestic O&M sector is viewed as increasingly important in helping to maintain employment levels - particularly as more and more wind farms move beyond the construction and installation phase and the focus of many projects moves towards looking after infrastructure that is already in place.

According to the June 2017 report Future UK Employment in the Offshore Wind Industry - commissioned by the University of Hull on behalf of Aura - employment in operations and maintenance, defined as covering 'activities related to the operation and running of offshore wind sites, as well as servicing of devices on those sites, electrical components and 'balance of plant,'' is driven by the total operational capacity and the number of sites. As total capacity continues to increase year-on-year, this activity 'can be seen to continue to grow through to 2030 and beyond.'

Moreover, following an investigation into potential employment distribution by region in the offshore wind sector between 2017 and 2032, the report also concludes that growth is 'seen down the east coast of Britain, with particularly strong growth in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber.' However, although employment in most regions is expected to grow, the report also reveals that it is projected to 'fall slightly' in some other regions - largely as 'existing under-construction sites are completed and the increase in operations and maintenance staff do not fully offset the reduction of installation and construction employees.'

In addition to broadening the research knowledge base relating to offshore wind O&M, Hill also believes that the work of the Centre will result in a range of identifiable benefits for the offshore sector - both in the UK and elsewhere. These include the industry wide improvement O&M services and the reduction of costs - as well as the creation of a range of opportunities for UK supply chain companies and the establishment of what Hill calls 'key O&M products, services and skills that can be used both within the UK and exported abroad, contributing to job growth and UK economic benefit.' Looking ahead, Hill is confident that, by applying consistent effort to the key research themes, the Centre will help the offshore wind sector to face up to the key technological and operational O&M challenges it currently faces.

"The Centre will [also] work with the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub to develop the established technology roadmap – identifying the key challenges facing offshore wind O&M and scoping the solutions required to resolve them," he adds.

By Andrew Williams