The US has been long sitting on a 13,000-mile coastline worth trillions (yes, trillions) of BTU in offshore wind energy, all of it accessible and ripe for the plucking. And yet, the country has only 5 commercial offshore turbines in operation. Somewhat ironically, the tide finally began to turn during the Trump administration. More and larger offshore projects are finally in the pipeline. To realize the full benefits of its offshore resources, though, the US will have to start getting serious about floating wind turbines.
Winds are stronger and more consistent. Floating turbines also enable wind development to take place in long swaths of the US coast that are too deep for conventional foundation-based turbines — and where large electricity-sucking populations tend to concentrate. So, what are we waiting for?
Dream Crushing Floating Wind Turbines Are On The Way
Other countries are already dipping a toe in the floating offshore wind turbine waters. Scotland is among the leaders with its Hywind project. France has also staked a claim in floating wind turbine development as the host country for the Floatgen consortium.
One issue is that an off-the-shelf supply chain is only just beginning to develop. Wind and water conditions vary from one region to another. A certain amount of wheel re-inventing has to take place before commercial-scale construction occurs at any particular site.
In addition, for all the cheering over Floatgen, the project is still in the demonstration phase. It consists of just one turbine with 2 megawatts of capacity. The Hywind project is also a relatively modest array at five turbines. In other words, investor nerves are still in play.
US Finally Wakes The Sleeping Floating Wind Dragon
Nevertheless, more floating offshore wind turbine projects are beginning to inch onto the pipeline. For example, here the the US the newly minted Redwood Coast Energy Authority in California is soliciting developers for the first floating offshore wind farm in the US.
If all goes according to plan, the effort will result in an array estimated at five to 15 floating turbines.
The precise location of the sea-to-land cable is not yet determined, but RCEA is already looking at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station in Northern California for the grid connection.
How Floating Offshore Wind Turbines Will Crush Coal, Oil, And Natural Gas
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Humboldt Bay power plant is a natural gas power plant with diesel backup. The company behind the plant’s equipment, Wärtsilä, is already planning for the day when natural gas will have to get along with more renewable energy in the grid.
Wärtsilä recently upgraded the plant. According to the company the new equipment is “ideal for providing a reliable backup to intermittent renewable resources, such as wind power resources, which are currently being developed in the region.”
That’s consistent with the emerging philosophy among natural gas stakeholders. The American Petroleum Institute, for example, has been making the case that modern natural gas power plants can provide the flexibility needed to integrate more renewable energy into the grid — at the expense of coal power, of course.
With a capacity of 163 megawatts, the Humboldt Bay plant won’t be ready to switch over to wind power any time soon. Even so, if the proposed floating wind farm gets off the ground it would still make a significant contribution to the grid mix.
Doing the math based on scaling the Floatgen 2-megawatt technology to a wind farm of 5 to 15 turbines, the RCEA project would have a capacity of 10 to 30 megawatts.
If you step it up a notch, the floating turbines in Scotland’s Hywind offshore wind farm are rated at 6 megawatts each. Under the scenario of 15 turbines at 6 megawatts each, capacity could climb up to 90 megawatts. That’s way over half the capacity of the existing Humboldt fossil plant.
Trump or no Trump, coal is already on the way out. Renewables are already crowding into the space that natural gas is trying to claim for itself. A fresh burst of activity in the offshore wind sector will accelerate these twin trends.
US Challenges Global Offshore Wind Industry with Cutting Edge R&D
Speaking of fresh burst, the US Department of Energy and the State of New York recently paired up to kick the nation’s wind industry into high gear with a new R&D consortium aimed at accelerating wind power development, both onshore and offshore.
In support of that endeavor, earlier this month the Energy Department announced a new $28 million round of funding for something awkwardly called Aerodynamic Turbines, Lighter and Afloat, with Nautical Technologies and Integrated Servo-control, or ATLANTIS.
I know, right? It seems like an awful lot of effort went into that acronym. Anyways, they aren’t kidding around. The program is aimed squarely at disrupting the floating offshore wind turbine field. ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s high-tech, high-risk, high-reward technology office is funding the initiative.
Part of the ATLANTIS initiative aims at accelerating the floating offshore wind sector by speeding up the design process:
Control co-design methodologies bring together diverse engineering disciplines to work concurrently while designing a device, instead of in sequential steps. The CCD approach enables project teams to develop new ways to build FOWTs [floating offshore wind turbines] that would not be possible using a traditional design approach.
That’s just for starters. In addition, ARPA-E is looking for “design approaches that maximize power to weight ratios while maintaining or increasing turbine efficiency.”
As ARPA-E explains, today’s floating wind turbines are your basic wind turbines, that float. The office is looking ahead to the next generation, where it envisions new designs that do away with the “massive floating platform” approach. That’s not gonna be easy:
To design innovative, economically competitive FOWTs, researchers must overcome several significant technical barriers: insufficient current knowledge of how FOWT sub-system dynamics interact; insufficient computer tools for dynamic simulation; and a dearth of experimental data. ATLANTIS will address these technical barriers while exploring radically new FOWT design concepts that minimize mass and maximize productive rotor area to provide economical offshore wind power.
Got all that? It might take a while, but according to ARPA-E’s numbers the payoff is impressive:
Accessible U.S. offshore wind is estimated at more than 25 quads per year (a quad is one quadrillion BTUs, equivalent to 45 million tons of coal, 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil). Nearly 60% of that wind energy—the equivalent of the entire U.S. annual electricity consumption—blows across waters more than 200 feet deep, an area that cannot be economically accessed today.
Got what it takes to apply for funding? Run right over to the ARPA-E eXCHANGE portal.
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to RCEA to see if there’s any new news on their offshore wind project, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image: Offshore wind float structures by Scott Bauer, NREL.