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Diversification is helping JDR weather a troubled offshore oil and gas market — and could leave the UK umbilical and cable specialist well positioned for a sector turnaround.
Like many long-time players in the offshore energy business, JDR Cable Systems has learned to roll with industry ups and downs, spotting opportunities in both good times and challenging periods.
In the current oil and gas lull, the company has focused a lot of attention on the offshore power generation market and the manufacture of subsea power cables that connect wind turbines to electrical grids.
It’s a segment JDR entered in the first half of the last decade with the Beatrice wind energy demonstrator project in the Moray Firth offshore Scotland. The company supplied two fibre optic-equipped 33kV power cables connecting a pair of 5 MW turbines to the Beatrice platform.
Ten years later the company won a contract to provide 180 kilometres of inter-array cable for the recently sanctioned 588 MW Beatrice offshore wind farm, which will comprise 84 wind turbines in the Outer Moray Firth.
JDR’s other major awards include subsea cable supply for the giant Greater Gabbard and London Array offshore wind farms.
James Young joined JDR in 2000, around the time the company was branching into the subsea power cable market. He served in management roles overseeing the design and manufacture of both power cables and the subsea production umbilicals that the company is better known for among oil and gas customers.
In 2016 Young was named the company’s chief technology officer, a position that he describes as “more strategic and external-focused, to communicate to the industry what we’re doing, how we’re developing products, and to engage with customers at the strategic level.”
The job also gives him a leading role in developing the company’s five-year technology “roadmap”, a planning strategy that has already yielded results in terms of new products launched and cost reduction initiatives.
“What’s interesting right now is that we’ve evolved our technology in renewables and we’re able to bring that back into oil and gas,” Young says. The most prominent example is the company’s new 66 kV subsea power cable, developed for the next generation of more powerful wind turbines but applicable to increasingly power-hungry subsea systems.
JDR recently completed successful qualification of the 66kV array cable, capping a three-year research and development programme. While offshore wind companies are the likely early adopters, oil and gas interests are eyeing the technology as an integral component in the so-called subsea factory.
Optimised cables could help “advance the fields of the future,” says Young.
“What we’ve done is innovate new, lower cost solutions to delivering high voltage,” he says.
There are a handful of examples of ultra-high power for subsea systems — GE’s 145 kV capacity subsea power supply, transmission and distribution system for the Ormen Lange subsea compression pilot, for example. But electricity for most subsea oil and gas systems runs through umbilicals with a power capacity of 17-35 kV, sufficient for electrical submersible pumps.
“But with the move toward compression at the seabed, the amounts of power needed are increasing dramatically. If you stay at 33 or 35 kV, your conductor sizing starts to get much, much larger and the losses start to come into play, restricting the amount of power you are able to deliver.”
Stepping up to 66 kV “is going to be very interesting for the industry,” Young continues. “We’re actively looking to see how that can be deployed in oil and gas projects in the future. Innovation from renewables being reused for the oil and gas industry could be very beneficial to the sector in delivering more power to the seabed.”
JDR Cables has about 500 employees, with production activity concentrated in two main facilities. At Littleport, near Cambridge, the company has operated a thermoplastic hose and umbilical production facility since the early 1980s.
JDR’s large cable and umbilical production activity is focused at its quayside facility in Hartlepool. The Hartlepool complex opened in 2009 to serve the offshore wind and tidal energy sector, with manufacturing capacity for long-length thermoplastic subsea umbilicals.
In 2016 JDR installed a horizontal lay-up machine (HLM) for manufacturing complex steel tube and power umbilicals. The equipment, manufactured by the Austrian equipment maker Mali, is thought to be the biggest in the UK and second largest in the world, and complements the company’s vertical lay-up machine (VLM), also in Hartlepool.
“We have been investing a lot in new cables and umbilicals over the last few years, as well as in manufacturing and testing equipment,” Young says. “The HLM in particular is a machine designed for steel tube power umbilicals that can bring all of the functional lines needed from the host platform to the seabed.”
JDR has also branched out into the intervention workover controls systems (IWOCS) business, building on the company’s legacy as a thermoplastic hose provider. JDR now makes high-pressure hoses rated to 15,000 psi and has qualified a new hose that can handle 17,500 psi pressure.
The company has expanded its test facilities and has tested more than 80 different IWOCS umbilical cross-section configurations to date, Young says.
“That’s really important because we are able to look at almost any configuration and determine if it will have any potential issues,” he notes.
JDR has developed self-supporting IWOC umbilical technology and integrated reeler systems for deep-water riserless interventions and is extending the technology to ultra-deep deployments in 3000-metre (10,000-foot) water depths.
IWOCS umbilicals are “a key product line for us and we’re still working on development,” he says. “We see this (17,500 psi hose) as an intermediate ultra-high pressure class — we also have 20,000 psi hoses on our development list, and we’re actively working on that.”
Young notes the increased emphasis on subsea tie-backs in the current oil price climate. Tying back to existing infrastructure can be much more economical than installing a new platform. But flow assurance may depend on high pressure to push production over longer distances.
“It’s really good to qualify the 17,500 psi product because we can see that it could be used to help move the technology along in the interim. And I think with higher well pressures and longer step-out distances, these kinds of technology enablers are really important,” he says.
As both subsea and renewable energy technologies mature, more crossover is likely. Young points out, for example, that the offshore energy industry is exploring the use of a floating offshore wind turbine with battery storage to power a subsea tree.
This type of system would be more remote and, if in a deep-water configuration, would need a dynamic power umbilical to deliver either power or control to the subsea tree and any pumping, compression and separation equipment.
“Combination of technology from both renewable energy and oil and gas will significantly reduce risk and enable the benefits of these systems to be realised,” he says.