“Back in wind’s early days we’d go merrily putting the jackup’s feet down with just a few borehole samples taken here and there to tell us what we were standing on - like a farmer tramping round a cow-field, lucky to avoid the obvious hazards,” said Peter Robinson of MPI.
This stands in contrast with more recent operations: “It’s not just the known unknowns,” he said. “Now you even have to try to quantify the unknown unknowns.” Unsurprisingly there’s a hint of nostalgia for what he calls the ‘Boy’s Own approach’ of old. “We were very amenable to trying things out - and MPI wasn’t unique by any means.” But he’s realistic: “Actually, the industry was lucky to get away without a major incident in those early days.”
Even so, a couple of years ago an almost ‘perfect storm’ of events - and a few real ones – hit the market with devastating effect. He explained: “The glut of installation vessels depressed prices by between 20% and 30%: almost at the same time components’ scale rose dramatically.” If that wasn’t enough, suddenly the contractors were left holding the baby for any overruns.
The reason was simple. “At first contracts were pay-as-you-go; this was something of a blank check for installation vessels. But then the developers needed to fix costs and started to say to us, ‘Right, you’re so clever, you tell us how long it will take – and we’ll just pay for that. Oh, and by the way, for every day you go over, we’ll hit you with penalties’.”
That left companies like MPI bearing the brunt of the risk; he admitted the very first job in under the new regime was “painful”. “We’d given ourselves a margin of 25 days but 2013 was a year with absolute hooligans of storms kicking up; we ran over by a month...”
However, MPI “squeaked through” and, he pointed out there is smooth with the rough: “This year the weather has allowed us to work like a well-oiled machine,” he said. “Still, you need to have processes in place that will work on a sunny June afternoon and in December when your fingers are so cold they feel like a bunch of bananas.”
So, what for the future? Although MPI has raised its capacity to match the 8MW towers, according to Mr Robinson, “development’s at a pause”. So, despite having a new jack-up design at the ready he “doesn’t believe the industry will be leaping into the 10MW-plus turbines straightaway”.
After all, despite ‘economies of scale’ these big new machines might not suit everyone. It’s a spread betting issue: “If a 10MW turbine in a 100MW field goes down, that’s 10% of the output,” he explained. “A whopping slice on just one tower.”
One last, interesting point. To help wind power to get subsidy free (potentially by 2020) “we’ll probably need to install 10MW components at exactly the same rate as we did those early 2MW towers back in 2004”. A fine aim, Mr Robinson.
By Stevie Knight