Last week I wrote about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech advocating wind power, a long awaited awakening to its potential. Johnson specifically mentioned floating wind turbines, and on that front he isn’t so far behind the curve. The world’s first commercial floating wind turbines were installed off the coast of Scotland in 2017.
The big advantage of floating wind turbines is that it expands the number of places you can build. You are no longer restricted to shallow waters. By being able to stick turbines further out to sea, you can also capture more powerful and more reliable winds. For a Conservative government, this has the added benefit of being out of sight. Hating the aesthetics of wind power is a minority pursuit, but an influential one. You may remember one Donald Trump, before his presidential run, being a noisy opponent of offshore wind in Scotland because he thought it spoiled the view from his golf courses.
A second big advantage of floating wind power is that they are easier to build, and that’s not just to do with the lack of foundations. The big win comes from being able to construct the turbine in port, using quayside cranes. The turbine can then be towed into position. That’s a big cost saving on the massive and highly specialist marine lifting gear that’s needed to assemble a turbine at sea. I expect that the government’s planned upgraded to ports are along these lines.
So far the sector has been very successful, and new projects are planned in Scotland. The government is quite right to spot an opportunity here, because it’s an aspect of the renewable energy industry that is relatively new. With support now, Britain can secure itself a first mover advantage and position itself to benefit from the sector’s growth, or at least that is what the government will be hoping.
In reality, floating wind power is already an international concern. The first floating wind turbine was developed in Norway. A rival prototype followed two years later in Japan. Scotland provided the grid connections for the first floating array, but the turbines were built in Norway and towed to Scotland, mounted on platforms that were manufactured in Spain. A second project in Scotland, which has been delayed by Covid-19, will feature turbines made in Spain.
Other countries involved in floating wind power include Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Japan, and there is interest from France and the US. As usual, China is moving very fast, and has multiple demonstrator projects on the go. Boris Johnson hopes that in 2030 Britain could be such a leader in floating wind that it would have “fifteen times as much as the rest of the world put together”. I imagine Chinese wind power executives would allow themselves a chuckle at that.
Whether or not Johnson gets the global dominance he fantasises about remains to be seen, but we’re certainly going to be hearing more about floating wind power. And it is an impressive development in renewable energy. I can recommend making a cup of coffee and spending nine minutes with the documentary below on Hywind Scotland.