We’ve been covering floating wind turbines for years. The idea is one that forever seems to be on the horizon (no pun intended), which may make it seem like a dead end, but I’m actually really bullish about floating wind turbines. We have to recognize that floating wind turbines are one of the more nascent renewable energy technologies, and it takes time to get to commercialization. The industry is just now budding, and it could be a contender within a couple of years.
For starters, here’s a quick recap of industry highlights: In 2010, we discussed a floating offshore wind study in the UK. In 2011, we wrote about plans to launch a floating wind turbine prototype built by Vestas and Principle Power off the coast of Portugal, which was then installed in 2012. Also in 2012, we wrote about floating wind turbine testing in Japan (twice), a UK–US floating offshore wind turbine collaboration, a UK feasibility study regarding floating offshore wind turbines, and the first floating offshore wind turbine testing in the US. Last year, we discussed new R&D funding from Scotland for floating wind turbines and the launch of a floating wind turbine pilot project there. Earlier this year, Tina wrote an epic piece on the floating wind turbines and early efforts in US waters (five years after I think we first wrote about floating wind turbines). Those are some of the key highlights, but for much more, scroll through our floating wind turbines archives.
The take-home points from all of that are: 1) there’s a lot of interest in floating offshore wind turbines around the world, but 2) nothing has gotten to the full commercialization stage.
On my cleantech tour of Germany last month*, I got to spend a lot of time learning about another contender in the super-young floating wind turbine foundation market — Grossmann Ingenieur Consult GmbH, aka GICON. (I thought the name sounded familiar, and it turns out I actually referenced the German company back in 2012.) I learned a lot more about floating wind turbines from that visit, and also a lot about GICON itself, of course.
The Promise of Floating Wind Turbines
Despite seeming a bit “extravagant” or “exotic,” floating wind turbines are about simplifying offshore wind power. Building permanent foundations for conventional offshore wind turbines in the sea bed and then constructing the wind turbines on top of them is quite difficult and expensive. Floating wind turbines can be almost completely put together on land, and then simply towed out into place and anchored down (not with an actual boat anchor, of course, but using various potential methods).
Aside from that benefit, floating wind turbines can be placed in deeper waters where there are strong and steady winds. That means more electricity production, which translates to greater commercial competitiveness.
All in all, GICON estimates that its floating offshore wind turbine foundations will be able to cut offshore wind turbine foundation costs by 25–30%. And there’s market pressure in Germany that is essentially requiring such a cut in cost, so that’s really GICON’s only option if it is to succeed.
For a little bit of visual perspective, have a look at these various (giant) wind turbine parts that have to be put together on the docks and offshore in a typical offshore wind turbine:
Yes, they said that on full tower alone weighs 250 tons! And these aren’t even very big wind turbines — they’re just 3.6 megawatts in capacity. Having to put these together on the docks and offshore in rough environments adds a lot of cost to offshore wind power. Floating wind turbines would help to skip almost all of that extra cost.
One thing to note is that not all floating wind turbine foundations are the same. In fact, the pilot projects in place around the world (in Japan, the UK, the US, and Portugal) mostly use different designs. GICON’s Head of Offshore Wind, Uwe Husmann, who talked to us, thinks that different wind turbine manufacturers will simply end up partnering with different foundation manufacturers, the ones that best fit their needs and that they have worked with to custom develop platforms. Uwe noted that a strong connection to a turbine manufacturer is most critical. (GICON does indeed have a partnership with a leading German wind turbine manufacturer, but we were asked not to name the company.)
GICON, which is using internal financing (via a German bank), has gone through various testing phases. The design of the platforms, which comes from a partner university, has been changed a couple of times in order to cut the weight (use of steel) and cut costs a great deal. It has just started building a commercial-scale prototype for a pilot project in the Baltic Sea. This prototype will roll out of the factory in nearly one year. (And I hope to be there again when the massive turbine rolls out of one of the tallest “garages” in the world!) For now, here’s a video, and some pics, of the current construction:
(Admittedly, I think I included too many pics at the end of that video….)
If all goes well, GICON hopes to go into serial production in the next few years. In serial production, the company could produce 50 foundations per year, Uwe says. That would require approximately 1,000 fitters and welders, cumulatively putting in approximately 1.5 million worker-hours in a year. That would offer a big job boost to the region where GICON is located, which took a tremendous employment hit when the shipyard industry crashed.
Floating wind farms may never catch up with onshore wind farms, but I think they have a bright future. A report we wrote about last year found that floating offshore wind turbines could meet EU electricity demands 4x over. GICON looks primed to succeed in this market, as it already has a partnership with a major German wind turbine manufacturer and has started production of a full-scale prototype. But the market is still young, so we’ll have to wait to see who comes out on top.
*My cleantech tour around Germany was mostly covered by Germany Trade & Invest. Of course, no content requirements were put on me, and I am only covering the stories that I found truly interesting and promising.