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Published on April 15th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Zero Gearbox Adds Up To Massive New Offshore Wind Turbine Opportunities

April 15th, 2015 by  

Our friends over at GE Power Conversion have turned our attention to the fact that the cost of offshore wind energy is higher than it could be, partly because of, well, wind. Installation and maintenance operations have to elbow in around weather that often varies from challenging to life-threatening, and according to GE, every time you send out a support vessel you’re talking about $10,000 per day and up. We had no idea, did you?

That brings us around to the topic of permanent magnet generators. They work on direct drive and require no gearbox, thus eliminating many pesky little extra things that could go wrong. They could help cut way down on those $10,000-per-day outings, but the challenge has been to design a generator big enough to handle gigantic offshore wind turbines.

largest offshore wind turbine generator GE

GE Power Conversion’s Zero Gearbox Generator

And, that brings us around to the reason why GE tapped us on the shoulder. We’ve been following the company’s recent wind turbine innovations, such as the launch of a super-smart “brilliant” Internet-enabled onshore wind turbine in the Netherlands, and a cladded space frame wind turbine tower in the Mohave Desert.

GE also wants us to know about its next-generation permanent magnet generators (PMGs), which are large enough to corral the energy from offshore wind turbines, while being compact, lightweight, efficient, and reliable. Its current model — one of the world’s largest, according to GE — weighs in at 6 megawatts.

As for the size of a typical offshore wind turbine, the GE Power Conversion blog puts it into perspective. If you’ve ever seen an Airbus A380, imagine four of them parked end to end. That’s about equal to the sweep of today’s offshore wind turbine blades.

Here’s the advantages as described by GE:

GE Power Conversion’s direct drive system has no mechanical gearbox coupled to the generator. This increases reliability and the turbine’s availability, while the elimination of the gearbox allows for higher efficiencies. The high reliability also leads to increased production time and fewer maintenance house calls, ultimately driving down the cost of wind energy.

To gild the lily, GE Power Conversion’s PMG system is designed with built-in redundancy, with two electrical channels. If connectivity is lost in one channel, the turbine can continue to function until a repair run can be scheduled.

If you want to see one in action, you have to go France or Belgium, but that could be just the first trickle in a flood. GE is also eyeballing growth in the market for offshore wind turbines in the Americas and China, for starters.

About that American Offshore Wind Energy Thing…

Although the US has been adopting onshore wind energy hand over fist, the nation’s enviable offshore resources have yet to be tapped.

Part of the reason is that technology has not yet caught up with geology. The long Pacific coastline is not hospitable to shallow water turbines, and deepwater wind turbine technology is still in the development stages.

The other part is political. The US Atlantic Coast is swarming with offshore wind energy opportunities, but little has been done so far. It appears that there is some kind of connection between the party affiliation of a coastal state’s elected officials and the progress made on offshore wind development.

However, the outlook for US offshore wind energy on the Atlantic Coast has been looking brighter over the past few months. In a major speech last summer, President Obama dropped a tantalizing hint about the role of wind power in the future US energy landscape. Since then, the Interior Department has forged ahead with a series of Atlantic coast offshore wind farm leases, effectively blowing off the political bottleneck.

Whatever Happened To The New Jersey Energy Link?

Speaking of Atlantic Coast offshore wind energy, while we were surfing around the Intertubes for the latest news we came across something called the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC). That’s the massive transmission project that would tie all that new Atlantic Coast offshore wind energy together.

Back in October 2013, AWC got all excited over a part of the project called the New Jersey Energy Link. This would be an undersea, offshore transmission project connecting the northern and southern parts of the state. The overarching goal is to harden the state’s grid against damaging storms, but given its location off the New Jersey coast, it also has a strong offshore wind energy angle.

AWC was especially excited about the job prospects:

The New Jersey Energy Link could become the foundation for many thousands of future jobs in a new New Jersey offshore wind industry. According to a study by IHS Global Insight, a large, multi-year build out of offshore wind farms could create between 10 and 20 thousand jobs in the state, pump $9 billion into the State economy and bolster state and local tax revenues by $2.2 billion.

Building an offshore electrical substation platform to connect the wind turbines to the transmission system would employ an additional 500-600 New Jersey workers for two years for each platform according to estimates by Bechtel, the project’s Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractor.

I know, right? With Google among the project sponsors, this is certainly an A-list project.

Unfortunately, offshore wind energy in New Jersey has been facing those aforementioned political A-listers.

Last we heard, the New Jersey Energy Link developers had given up on the wind angle, so GE and its PMG might have to wait a bit longer to tap into that market.

If you’ve heard anything else about the New Jersey Energy Link, give us a whistle in the comment thread.

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Photo credit: Permanent magnet generator for offshore wind turbine courtesy of GE Power Conversion. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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