The massive, 88-megawatt Hywind Tampen floating offshore wind farm revved up in Norway last week, pretty much on schedule following a construction period of just two years. The rapid pace from start to finish could help undermine the case for new nuclear power plants, though in terms of global decarbonization it’s a mixed blessing. All of the clean kilowatts from the wind farm will be used to power offshore fossil energy operations.
World’s Biggest Floating Offshore Wind Farm, For Oil
CleanTechnica first took note of the Hywind Tampen offshore project in 2020, when it launched under the wing of the Norwegian energy firm Equinor. The aim was to use renewable energy instead of natural gas at the existing Snorre and Gullfaks offshore oil platforms in the North Sea, and floating turbines fit the bill. Equinor expects that energy from the offshore wind farm will cut natural gas consumption at the two sites by 35%.
Using renewable energy as an enabler for oil and gas production is not a new development. Solar energy, for example, has been used at onshore oil fields since the 1980s. The scale of solar-powered extraction has also been increasing, from a few hundred kilowatts for ancillary operations to double-digit megawatts, one example being the 29-megawatt Lost Hills solar array in California.
In terms of urgent action on climate change, the ideal plan would be to shut down all of those sites and deploy renewable energy to replace fossil energy on the consumer end, as quickly as possible. The investment in the wind farm indicates that Equinor is betting on oil and gas operations to continue under a reduced-carbon scenario, at least for the time being.
More Floating Wind Turbines For The Energy Transition
Equinor also describes its new wind farm as a demonstration project that will contribute to best practices and supply chain improvements in the floating wind industry overall. Floating wind is a relatively new development, aimed at unlocking renewable energy resources in offshore areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Instead of the conventional monopile platform design, floating turbines are built on platforms anchored to the seabed by cables.
According to Equinor’s figures, about 80% of the world’s offshore wind resources are located in waters that are too deep for conventional fixed-platform construction.
As recently as 2020, the number of offshore wind turbines deployed on floating platforms was practically zero. That is rapidly changing. The US Department of Energy crunched the numbers earlier this year and catalogued three new floating wind arrays that launched in 2021, for a combined total of 57.1 megawatts. The bulk of that was for Scotland’s 50-megawatt Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm.
The Tampen project represents a step up in scale. In a press release last week, Equinor stated that seven of 11 planned turbines will be online this year with a combined total of 60 megawatts, beating out Kincardine for the title of biggest floating offshore wind farm. The remaining four turbines are pre-assembled and will be installed when the seasonal weather window opens next year, bringing the total capacity to 88 megawatts.
Red Flag For Nuclear Energy
All of this activity is peanuts compared to the size of the floating wind pipeline. According to the Energy Department, a total of 60,746 megawatts’ worth of floating offshore wind turbines are in operation or under development.
That figure will most likely be surpassed in short order. Offshore wind developers are already adopting new turbine technologies aimed at reducing costs and improving efficiency. Cost efficiency measures can also include co-locating wave energy converters and solar panels, and it is only a matter of time before green hydrogen systems are co-located as well.
The downward slide in the cost of offshore wind and other renewables is a sharp contrast with nuclear energy development in the US.
In 2019, researchers with the MIT Energy Initiative took a long look at the delays and cost overruns that bedevil the US nuclear industry. They concluded that something was fundamentally out of whack. The general expectation for a given technology is that costs drop over the years, as adoption increases and capacity grows. Not so for the US nuclear industry, though.
“…rising construction costs and project delays have hampered efforts to expand nuclear capacity in the United States since the 1970s,” MIT explains. “At plants begun after 1970, the average cost of construction has typically been far higher than the initial cost estimate.”
MIT notes that nuclear energy stakeholders continue to project rosy assumptions about construction timelines based on a conventional technology “learning rate” model, even though the evidence indicates that the nuclear industry has not followed the conventional model in more than 50 years.
“…in the case of nuclear plants, learning rates are negative,” MIT emphasizes. “Costs just keep rising.”
Next Steps For Nuclear Development
The MIT analysis indicates that the increase is not necessarily a hardware problem. The study focused on soft costs including engineering services and labor.
“Tightening safety regulations were responsible for some of the cost increase, but declining labor productivity also played a significant role,” MIT explains.
MIT makes the case for nuclear developers to incorporate the full weight of soft costs into their projections. That’s a moot point here in the US, where full scale nuclear power plant construction is all but dead. Only one new unit has come online since 1996. That was the Watts Barr Unit 1 plant in Tennessee, which went online at an existing site in 2016.
Of the two other 21st-century full scale nuclear projects in the US, one was to consist of two new units at the existing VC Summer power plant South Carolina. That project was canceled in 2017 after billions in cost overruns, presenting a sharp contrast with the potential for rapid solar development in the state.
The other project consists of two new units for the existing Vogtle power plant in Georgia. Like the VC Summer project, Vogtle incurred significant cost overruns and timeline delays. The bulk of construction work began 10 years ago in 2012, with the initial aim of startup by 2017 for both units. The original cost was projected at $14 billion. By early this year it was closing in on $30 billion, with startup anticipated in 2023.
More Next Steps For Nuclear Energy
As one solution to the learning rate issue, the US Department of Energy has been focusing on SMRs (small modular reactors), in partnership with the firm NuScale Energy. Instead of reinventing the construction wheel at each site, NuScale’s SMRs are standardized, prefabricated, and pre-permitted.
The latest development in that effort involves the construction of a NuScale nuclear facility in Ukraine, to be paired with a green hydrogen system.
The SMR pathway seems more promising than the full-scale approach. NuScale claims a construction schedule of less than three years for its Voyager SMRs, starting with the pouring of safety concrete. Site preparation could add a significant amount of time on top of that, though.
NuScale also does not anticipate its Voyager SMRs to be up and running until the end of the decade, while wind and solar development continue apace. However, as long as other nations continue to pursue nuclear energy, US energy policy will more than likely continue to support the domestic nuclear industry as well.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey (for now).
Photo: The Hywind Tampen floating wind farm in the North Sea (credit Karoline Rivero Bernacki / Equinor ASA).
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