Phevos Skalidis
Phevos Skalidis (Research Manager)

While 5G is at least a couple of years away from widespread availability, interest in its potential in the utility sector is gradually increasing. Offshore wind farms are among the many potential application domains of 5G in the utility sector.

As the name implies, offshore wind farms are installed in the sea at a distance to the nearest shore that usually does not exceed 100km, at a depth of no more than 45m. On the high seas, wind reaches a higher and more constant speed, enabling the newer projects to match the capacity factors of fossil-fueled power plants.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global offshore wind capacity is projected to increase fifteenfold to 2040, becoming a $1 trillion industry over the next two decades. Reliable communication is essential if the industry is to grow as expected.

Offshore Wind Farms Are Ideally Placed for Early 5G Adoption

Several characteristics make utilities that own and operate offshore wind farms candidates for early adoption of 5G technology, as well as their subcontractors. Construction takes place in the absence of fixed communication with the mainland, often in adverse weather conditions, therefore posing significant challenges.

Network reliability is essential, as construction workers need to be connected to easily reach colleagues at company headquarters, as well as emergency services and each other. Beyond voice communication, they require access to data (e.g., construction blueprints), which is also true for maintenance personnel after construction is complete.

The industry’s network options have significant drawbacks. vSat has global coverage, but data connectivity is an issue given low throughput (i.e., 14Mbps) and high installation costs. TETRA/P25 type solutions typically have a range of 30km–60km but have a very low throughput.

When the first offshore wind farms were constructed in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, these were small and close to the coast. Over the past five years, the number of installed turbines per farm and their nameplate capacity have increased, as has the distance to the shore.

As a result, vessels now transport more construction or service staff and no longer return to the shore daily. Connectivity issues are starting to make themselves evident, even if private LTE networks provide some remedy.

5G networks are increasingly important to the utilities sector given the offshore data consumption and speed requirements. Companies involved in the construction and servicing of offshore wind farms will have to accommodate more than 10TBs of data transfer per month, per vessel, and speeds of several hundreds of Mbps, unless they are willing to compromise with lower quality service toward clients and their staff.

New 5G Applications

As is often the case with new technologies, 5G networks will lead to new sector-specific applications. Capital-intensive assets such as offshore wind farms lend themselves to innovative maintenance approaches, such as drone inspections and AR-enabled head-mounted displays (HMDs) used by field technicians.

In both cases, high traffic capacity is fundamental. Raising the bar on technical requirements once again, a digital twin of the offshore wind turbines would require extremely low latency and high connection density. Doesn’t all that sound like fertile ground for 5G?

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