A key challenge facing the UK offshore renewables industry - how to monitor subsea cables that bring energy onshore - is set to be tackled by researchers at Heriot-Watt University.
An intelligent monitoring system which will safeguard underwater cable networks is being developed, with funding from Scottish Hydro Electric Power Distribution (SHEPD), which is part of SSE. The system could reduce the energy company's costs and help keep customer bills down.
Subsea cables take energy produced offshore to the onshore Grid for distribution, and also transport electricity from the Grid to islands communities.
60% of subsea cable failure is due to wear and tear. Repairing the cables is very costly, with maintenance vessels and the associated support cost in the region of £30,000 per day. If companies can anticipate cable failures before they happen, they can undertake planned work, which is much more cost effective.
The 12-month, £194,000 project, the first of its kind in the UK, could enable such planned cable maintenance, potentially saving the industry millions.
Staff from Heriot-Watt University's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences will lead a team of experts who will use specialist sensors to provide real-time monitoring and analysis of subsea cables and then send intelligence reports back to shore. The team will include staff at University of Greenwich and WFS Technologies.
Dr David Flynn, energy team leader at Heriot-Watt University, said: "Finding an affordable way to reliably transmit energy from offshore facilities to shore and into the Grid is crucial to the sector.
"Our proposed system will provide constant, real-time updates on the condition of subsea cables, allowing for planned maintenance, rather than just waiting until a part of the system fails.
"This could be the difference between affordable maintenance and expensive responses to unexpected failure, and will help minimise supply interruptions."
Our proposed system will provide constant, real-time updates on the condition of subsea cables, allowing for planned maintenance, rather than just waiting until a part of the system failsDr David Flynn, energy team leader at Heriot-Watt University
Bob Hopkins, SHEPD Project Manager, said: "Our company serves almost every island in the United Kingdom, so the reliability of subsea cable links is extremely important to us. Monitoring cables in real time provides invaluable information and helps us keep costs down for customers while maintaining security of supply.
"We believe that the system Heriot-Watt is developing could help us predict when cables have to be replaced by monitoring their movement on the sea bed, which is mainly caused by tidal fluctuations and storms. It will allow us to plan which cables must be examined as a priority in order to assess the level of wear and, if necessary, arrange for their replacement."
The intelligent systems will use off-the-shelf components, including the sort of movement sensing technology used in automotive airbags. The sensors will be mounted around the cables using a collar, which will be fitted at intervals over the entire sub-sea circuit length.