SSE has become the first UK company, and only the second company in the world, to carry out maintenance and repair operations on its offshore wind farms by helicopter – a move that is expected to help increase turbine availability, thereby enabling more electricity to be generated.
Full helicopter operations, utilising an EC135T2e operated by Bond Air Services Ltd, began at SSE Renewables’ Greater Gabbard wind farm last October. Located off the Suffolk coast, Greater Gabbard is made up of 140 turbines, which at full capacity are capable of providing electricity for 530,000 homes.
Generally, technicians are transported to the wind farm by boat, and then climb the turbine towers to access the nacelle at the top – around 70 metres above sea level. When seas are rough, boats have restricted access, so they need another way of getting to the turbine safely to carry out essential repairs. Helicopters can deliver technicians directly to the nacelle hoist platform.
Technicians from both SSE Generation and main contractor, Siemens, had to undertake five days of specialist training before helicopter operations could begin.
Initial training began with a three-day Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training course, designed to give them a basic understanding of the hazards they might come across when working offshore.
This was followed by two days performing heli-hoist training: one day at Norwich airport in a helicopter hoist platform simulator designed by SSE engineers and another spent practising hoisting onto a real turbine at Greater Gabbard.
Stephen Rose, Offshore Generation Manager at SSE, said: “Helicopter operations are a relatively high-risk operation, so it is critical that we do this training to retain the currency of our employees’ skills. We have worked very closely with Bond and the Civil Aviation Authority to make sure all our procedures are correct and safe.
“Last year we were only able to perform very basic day-to-day hoisting operations. Now that all our technicians and aircrew are trained, we are able to do more specialist operations such as taking ‘low-slung loads’ (very large components) out to the wind farm.
“Now we are using helicopters on a daily basis to do maintenance and repair work on the turbines and we are beginning to see the benefits of the turbines being available and generating electricity for the majority of the time. In January, for instance, we were able to reset and start eight turbines during 18 days of no access due to rough seas.”