energy technology

The benefits of floating wind power

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.

7 comments

  1. It looks like everything apart from the suction anchors was made and even assembled outside UK. This appears to comprise virtually all the clever/valuable technologies and know-how. Ownership of the facilties appears split between Norway and Abu Dhabi. Is the UK doing anything significant, beyond just buying the electricity? What form of ‘global leadership’ is it that Boris Johnson hopes UK will gain?
    It seems Norway has been putting a lot of effort into this over the past 15 years. What has UK been doing during that time?

    1. Well, the government sees Britain as a global leader in just about everything, so it’s more or less an automatic response. When I hear ministers talk about it though, one of the things they mention is that Britain is a leading market for offshore wind. If capacity is the main metric, then that is definitely true – we do have considerably more offshore wind power than anyone else in the world. If you believe in the power of markets, then being able to attract investment is a sign of leadership.

      We’re certainly not leading on the manufacturing, and don’t have any British representation in the top ten biggest wind power companies (six of which are Chinese). However, I get the impression that there is more going on at the engineering level than we might think, but it is easily missed because they’re smaller scale and cumulative.

      For example, because Britain has so much installed capacity, it has been fostering all kinds of innovations and cost cutting improvements in wind power installation, connections, or maintenance. We have good testing facilities and the opportunity to try things in the field, but we wouldn’t necessarily hear about it if we pioneered some new component or a faster cable connection.

      Sites like the Offshore catapult or the Offshore innovation hub are interesting on that front:
      https://ore.catapult.org.uk/
      https://offshorewindinnovationhub.com

  2. Yes good points (and I was being a bit ‘devils advocate’ with my remarks). I guess firms like BGV Associates have a good handle on things: https://bvgassociates.com/floating-offshore-wind-much-activity-in-the-shadows-by-kate-freeman/. I’d like to understand more on the technological/economic landscape and how it’s developing.
    I still worry that the greatest rewards (financial, technical, livelihoods) usuallygo to those with the biggest sustained commitments, and UK itself could lose out. Of course I’m delighted that SOMEBODY is getting on with it – sorely needed!

    1. Yes, I think you’re right – there is a risk that we’re now going to be a client of wind power companies, and that the profits will go elsewhere. There’s no question that we could have built up a manufacturing base, but wasted the crucial decade where that could have happened.

      My parents briefly lived on the Isle of Wight, directly opposite the Vestas factory that was at the time the only wind turbine manufacturer in the country (though Danish). They were there when it closed down in 2009, and that was kind of a symbolic moment. We were going to have wind power, but we were going to rely on others to deliver it.

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