Offshore Wind Power Industry About To Get Disrupted

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The floating offshore wind power industry is a little too young for disruption, but that is exactly what the Spanish startup X1 Wind has in mind. The company is leveraging its MIT pedigree to pitch a high performance floating turbine platform that could cut manufacturing and installation costs while solving the offshore industry’s looming labor shortage issues, to boot.

Looming Labor Shortage Haunts Offshore Wind Power

If there is an offshore wind labor shortage, the pandemic is not the culprit. As with the trucking industry and various industrial sectors, maritime industries have an aging, mostly male workforce that is bumping up against recruitment issues.

The onshore wind industry was already dropping hints about the potential for a labor shortage offshore, as noted by our friends over at The Cape Cod Times:

“… even in pre-pandemic times, labor shortages were predicted by clean energy experts, particularly in the land-based wind industry. In a 2019 National Renewable Energy white paper on the land-based wind industry’s hiring, training and future needs, 39% of employers surveyed said they were having some or great difficulty finding construction laborers and 33% were having problems finding wind technicians.”

The offshore wind sector takes  a double hit because components are manufactured on land but construction takes place at sea, and that requires ships and crews.

New Floating Offshore Wind Turbine Aims To Disrupt

That’s where X1 comes in. The company’s new floating offshore wind turbine is a streamlined, lightweight design aimed at providing ease of installation with local infrastructure, vessels and crews. That should help reduce the need for specialized ships and labor, but addressing workforce issues is just the tip of X1’s disruption spear.

The company has the seal of approval from the European Innovation Council Fund, and the firm Technip Energies has just announced the acquisition of a 16.3% stake. With that in its pocket, X1 is not shy about stating its intentions.

“We have developed a disruptive technology to make a step-change in the costs of floating wind,” they write, “We achieved this by using a weathervaning downwind concept and a single-point mooring system (PivotBuoy®), resulting in a cost-effective and scalable solution.”

As described by X1, “weathervaning” is just what it sounds like. The mooring cable is fixed to the ocean floor at a single point, and the system includes a moving element that enables the platform to pivot in accord with the available wind, like a weather vane on a barn, only bigger, and without the rooster and the barn.

The simplified mooring system resolves part of the labor problem, by cutting down on workforce-hours spent at sea.

“The PivotBuoy is designed to be pre-installed with the mooring system and to allow a quick connection and disconnection of the platform. This allows the platform to be assembled onshore and then towed to site using local vessels instead of heavy lift vessels, which simplifies offshore operations and reduces installation costs,” X1 explains.

But that’s not all.

Upwind Vs. Downwind For Offshore Wind Power

That thing about “downwind concept” is probably the most interesting thing about X1’s new offshore wind technology. The preferred design for most wind turbines today is to position the blades in front of the tower, facing into the wind. They stick out ahead of the turbine tower, far enough to eliminate any chance of the blades striking the tower. The blades also need to be relatively stiff, to avoid bending into the tower during high wind periods.

As explained by our friends over at the Danish Wind Industry Association — and they should know — the upwind front-of-tower design is preferred because it eliminates shading from the tower, which would cut down on efficiency.

On the downside, the upwind configuration is relatively complicated to engineer, partly because it requires a mechanism to keep the blades in an optimal position facing the wind.

The downwind configuration avoids some of this complexity and provides for increased flexibility, both of which lead to lighter weight and lower costs.

The Downwind Disruptor

DWIA does note several challenges and drawbacks for the downwind configuration, especially at the larger end of the wind turbine scale, which explains why the global wind industry has been mostly sticking with the upwind design.

X1 seems to have all that figured out, though.

“The downwind configuration enables a complete redesign of the floating structure, removing the traditional tower and creating a pyramidal platform that is more efficient in the load transmission,” X1 explains. “Downwind turbines also show some benefits compared to upwind systems, since downwind solutions do not need to tilt angles, rotor coning, or the use of pre-bent blades to avoid tower strike, which reduces turbine manufacturing costs and critical when scaling up to large 15MW+ rotors.”

That mention of 15 megawatts from wind power turbines may sound a bit pie in the sky, considering that just last year the industry appeared to be topping out at 13 megawatts. Nevertheless, X1 is planning ahead.

“Turbine developers are already working on rotor designs large of 15MW+ and our structural platform design works more efficiently (avoiding the high bending moments in tower-based systems) as well as allowing turbine blades to be lighter, longer, and cheaper as they can bend away from the structure,” X1 explains, adding that “We are also not constrained by water depth, being able to deploy cost-effectively at depths from 40m to more than 500m with our vertical mooring system.”

Let’s Hear It For Floating Offshore Wind

Renewable energy fans are enthused about floating offshore wind technology because floating platforms can be positioned farther out to sea than conventional platforms, which are typically fixed to the seabed with monopiles.

That provides for new opportunities to avoid conflicts with local tourism and maritime industries, and to avoid environmental impacts associated with monopile construction.

The prize is tempting indeed. Citing recent figures from the World Bank, X1 estimates that the technical potential for offshore wind power clocks in at 71 terawatts, and about 70% of that is suitable for floating wind turbines.

All this is by way of saying that the global decarbonization movement is only just getting under way. Here in the US, the offshore bottleneck is finally breaking into little bits, following years of obstruction and delay fostered by the usual suspects.

However, all’s well that ends well. The delay has already enabled US wind developers to adjust their plans to take advantage of the latest fixed-platform wind turbine technology, and new floating wind technology will enable more coastal states to develop their wind resources.

States to keep an eye on include Maine, which is depending on floating wind turbine technology due to challenging coastal conditions and maritime conflicts, in addition to Pacific coast states where sites for conventional monopile construction are few and far between.

To be clear, monopile will still have plenty of moments in the US in the coming years, and that includes some surprises. The deep red state of Louisiana is eyeballing its offshore assets in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. Another interesting situation is arising in New Jersey, where former Governor Chris Christie is credited with slow-walking the state’s earlier attempts at offshore development. Now the state is positioned to supply monopiles for new wind farms all up and down the east coast, so stay tuned for more on that workforce development angle.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (screenshot): New floating wind turbine for offshore wind farms courtesy of X1 .

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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