Jan 31, 2021

How Utility Helicopter Construction Is Advancing Green Energy

How Utility Helicopter Construction Is Advancing Green Energy

Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, making up roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the largest green energy initiatives in the United States focus on converting power grids across the nation to renewable solutions, like wind and solar.

This change is happening faster than anticipated. Renewable energy—especially wind—is the fastest-growing energy infrastructure category in the world. Investment in renewable energy now outpaces investment in conventional power by 2-1, amounting to roughly $300-$400 billion per year and moving clean energy to the center of the global energy landscape.

But a growing emphasis on renewable energy—and, as a result, an unprecedented challenge to build, construct and grid clean energy systems across the country—is testing the nation’s ability to meet the infrastructural needs of clean power.

While the EPA’s 2015 Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector to nearly 32% less than the country’s emissions in 2005, the cost to entirely transform the U.S. power grid to clean energy would cost trillions and require massive infrastructure updates and installation.

Helicopters are playing a key role in achieving and advancing this lofty goal. Already a powerful tool in power line and utility construction, helicopters’ agility, ability to carry large loads and capacity to safely suspend workers over tall structures make them ideal for constructing renewable energy solutions like wind turbines.

After these structures are built, helicopters will be needed to construct and maintain power lines to service these structures and ferry their electricity across the country—proving that helicopters are advancing clean energy across all phases of adoption, construction and implementation.

Helicopters and Wind Turbine Construction

While hydroelectric power is currently the dominant form of renewable generation, the vast majority of recent global growth has been focused on wind and solar, with wind power requiring the largest resources for construction and implementation.

Wind power refers to the generation of electricity by using large rotating turbines to capture kinetic energy from the wind. Most wind turbines are located on land in rural or remote areas with strong wind resources, though offshore wind deployment is growing at a fast pace. Offshore wind turbines are usually constructed miles off the coast, out of view from the shore.

Enormous structures, land turbines average roughly 466 feet tall in the United States, with turbine diameters over 450 feet wide. Offshore turbines, much larger, can reach up to 853 feet in size with turbine diameters over 700 feet.

What construction problems face wind turbine construction on land?

While land turbines generate the majority of wind power in the United States, building them poses many changes— not the least of which is their location. Because wind turbines are enormous structures that require considerable space and are visible for miles, many land turbines are built in remote or rural locations with limited infrastructure for construction of this kind.

Often, construction sites for land turbines have few roads to transport the enormous equipment and structures needed to erect the turbine. Most often, construction on a land turbine begins with the costly building of access roads that are designed to support the weight of the equipment being transported. Contractors must stomach the costs of moving excavators, bulldozes, graders and dump trucks to the construction site for the building of these roads, as well as land bridges and other physical elements that are needed to ferry equipment and technicians.

Similarly, delivery of the wind turbine components poses major challenges, often involving many tractor trailers and load-bearing vehicles. Because of these components’ size, project staff must coordinate with state and local highway authorities to choose routes and organize safe delivery.

While cranes are used to install a turbine’s blades, complicated and costly suspension systems for technicians to service wind turbines, as well as to build and install power line and connective grid systems, may double the time needed to efficiently install a working wind farm.

How do helicopters solve these problems?

Helicopters are the chosen tool to decrease costs, increase time efficiency, and allay many of the challenges facing wind turbine construction on land.

For example, the air crane capabilities and agile nature of helicopter transport lead many construction companies to use helicopters for flying personnel and equipment to a turbine site.

Helicopter flies low near the ground by a land wind turbine

New roads leading to wind turbine sites are one of the largest costs for wind farm owners, and transporting tower sections and turbine blades can provide logistical challenges that prevent turbine construction. Using helicopters to transport equipment is less expensive and faster, and helicopter crane lifting allows renewable energy companies to build clean power solutions in previously inaccessible areas.

Utility helicopters routinely lift between 1,200 and 4,000 pounds, though many load bearing helicopters and air cranes are able to lift equipment weighing between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds. The largest heavy-lift helicopter, for example, is capable of transporting up to 44,000 pounds of equipment.

These lifting capabilities—as well helicopters’ ability to maneuver in tight spaces, access hard-to-reach locations, and perform in all types of weather and terrain—make them ideal for expediting turbine construction. Some wind companies have even begun to design turbine blades that make for easier aerial transport, pursuing lighter blades or component construction.

Helicopters are innovating offshore wind turbine use.

While helicopters are key tools in land turbine construction, the use of helicopters is particularly transformative in the construction of offshore turbines, since these structures’ remote locations over water and complex service requirements can only be fulfilled by aerial construction.

The offshore wind power industry is among the fastest growing market segments for clean energy, since offshore rigs’ remote locations allow power companies to build larger turbines that feed off a more powerful wind resource. By all measures, helicopters are a part of this resurgence, shuttling crews and ferrying building equipment to wind farms located miles offshore.

Global offshore wind farm capacity is expected to increase 330 percent before 2020. And, according to Waypoint Leasing, “helicopter expenditures for offshore wind farms are projected to triple.” Helicopters are, in this way, among the most important tools to advance offshore clean energy generation. With almost 6,000 offshore turbines set to be constructed globally between 2018 and 2022, at least $120 million is anticipated to be spent on helicopter services to construct these offshore rigs.

While helicopters are essential for offshore construction, they also increase productivity. Helicopter transport is the fastest way to transport technicians from shore to wind turbines, and they enable park operators to significantly increase the amount of time technicians are able to work on the structures.

“Using helicopters to access [offshore] wind farms has increased daily productivity from seven hours to nine,” a recent report on helicopter usage in offshore clean energy reported. “Downtime due to inclement weather,” the report continued, “has been reduced to five hours by using helicopters, compared to 25 percent for ships.”

Beyond construction, helicopters are needed to service these complex and hard-to-reach structures after they are commissioned. “We consider how differently sized helicopters could serve roles at a wind farm, particularly with regard to unscheduled maintenance, general personal transports, emergency medical services and hoisting services,” the same report read.

Which aerial crane helicopters are in the Helicopter Express fleet?

Helicopter Express has a diverse fleet of utility and aerial crane helicopters which are used in a variety of energy, electrical and construction projects and could be applied to clean energy and wind turbine solutions.

Kaman K-Max K-1200
Kaman K-Max K-1200

With a maximum external load of 6,000 pounds, the Kaman K-Max K-1200 is a heavy-lift utility helicopter with many utility construction and aerial crane capabilities.

A medium-lift synchropter, the Kaman K-Max K-1200 uses intermeshing rotors that turn in opposite directions at opposite angles to provide greater lift capabilities. This helicopter is often used in electrical and energy construction capacities and would be ideal for application in turbine construction.

Outside of wind turbine applications, the Kaman K-Max K-1200 is most often used for:

Bell 205A-1++

Able to shuttle a maximum external load of 4,000 pounds, the Bell 205A-1++ is a two-blade, single-engine aircraft with a proven track record of successful heavy-lift procedures in high-altitude areas, high temperatures, and windy environments. The helicopter’s capacity to handle challenging atmospheric conditions make it particularly useful in environmental conditions offshore or in remote, challenging environments where land turbines might be located.

These helicopters are most often used for cargo and transportation, which make them well-suited for shuttling equipment to construction sites. When not working in a clean energy or turbine installation capacity, the Bell 205A-1++ is most often used for:

Airbus AS-350 B3
Airbus AS-350 B3

While the Airbus AS-350 B3 is a light utility helicopter able to carry a maximum external load of 3,200 pounds, this helicopter is used most often for utility patrol, making it ideal for inspection and service on offshore or land wind turbines.

We recommend hiring this helicopter for aerial inspections, preventative maintenance and environmental impact monitoring in normal or high-ambient conditions. In this way, the Airbus AS-350 B3 is particularly useful for land surveying and location scouting in remote locations when determining the location site for a turbine’s construction.

We often use Airbus AS-350 B3 helicopters in:

Investing in Clean Energy Means More Aerial Power Line Construction

The construction and commission of clean energy generators pose enormous challenges to fast infrastructure growth in the United States. But yet another challenge stands in the way of converting US power systems to renewable energy: Power lines.

The creation of new renewable energy generators, particularly in remote or hard to access locations, require electrical grids that can shuttle energy to higher density areas, and experts say that the existing U.S. grid and power line system isn’t equipped to handle changes brought about by a transition to clean energy.

Here, too, helicopters are a key tool for the advancement of clean energy.

Take, for example, the grid capabilities of the U.S.’s Great plains and desert Southwest. This area of the country has sweeping winds, abundant sunshine and swaths of unoccupied land, making it an ideal location for the production of renewable energy. Because there are so few people nearby to consume the power generated by remote wind and solar facilities, energy produced there must travel a long way to reach customers, and the United States is likely without the transmission lines to handle that delivery of electricity.

The construction of power lines, in this way, will be key to advancing clean energy across the United States. In a recent article, Bloomberg analyst Ethan Zindler called power line development “mission critical” for the country’s transition to cleaner power. “If you want a shot at 100% carbon-free, you’re simply going to need to transmit solar and wind power from America’s Saudi Arabia of renewables—the Southwest and the Midwest—to the cities,” he said.

What’s clear is that municipalities and utility companies must pursue billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements to solve this problem. One company in Illinois, for example, is pursuing a high-voltage line underground that would link the state to sustainable energy sources in Iowa. Costing nearly $2.5 billion, the project would deliver 2,100 megawatts of renewable energy, enough to power 1.2 million homes.

Helicopters and Utility Power Line Construction

Helicopters have a long history of utility and power line construction, serving as essential tools for constructing, building and maintaining electrical grids. As countries like the United States turn to clean energy solutions, helicopters will become indispensable tools in advancing power grids to handle changes in energy transmission.

Often, helicopters are used to replace aging electrical power lines or ensure electrical reliability for utility customers, and many utility companies rely heavily on the services of helicopters to ensure the stability of our electrical and grid systems. On a normal workday, thousands of flight hours are accumulated by pilots servicing electrical and construction companies.

Helicopters are used both for overhead power lines and underground pipe infrastructures, systems that will be used in conjunction for clean energy transmission.

Airborne utility unit fixes power lines from a helicopter

Helicopter pilots and experienced lineman often provide construction support and specialized services needed for line projects, from initial project surveys to final inspections. Helicopters perform routine power line patrols, which provide a cost-effective means of visually inspecting electric utility structures and conductors, and they sustain workmen and laborers who must hover for long periods of time over suspended structures.

Just the same, utility companies call on the lifting capabilities of a helicopter to expedite electrical pipeline construction projects. Transporting pipelines can be incredibly time-consuming and expensive, and helicopters are often used to transport pieces of pipe in less than half the time. In addition, utility companies routinely contract helicopter companies to perform pipeline patrols.

Helicopter Express Is Ready to Lead the Way In Clean Power Construction

Few tools are equipped to meet the infrastructure and construction challenges in advancing clean power and renewable energy across the United States like the helicopter, and Helicopter Express is ready to meet these utility demands.

Beyond wind turbine construction and the implementation of new power grids, helicopters are often used to lift and place solar panels for sun-sourced renewable energy, and Helicopter Express’ diverse fleet of aircraft and experienced team of pilots are ready to get to work on any utility or electrical construction project.

If you’re interested in learning more about our varied helicopter services, contact our Atlanta-based helicopter experts today.

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