Masdar confirms flagship floating turbine project off the coast of Scotland has been operating at 65 per cent capacity
It was only five or so years ago - a blink of an eye in infrastructure terms - that renewables industry insiders were dampening down expectations about the prospects for floating offshore wind farms.
"It'll be challenging enough to meet the government's target of delivering offshore wind power at under £100/MWh," they counselled, "and delivering floating offshore wind turbines is an order of magnitude more challenging again".
Yes, floating turbines held out the prospects of lower cost foundations and raised hopes turbines could access deeper water sites with stronger and more reliable winds. But many offshore engineers would nod sagely and warn that for all those obvious benefits massive technical challenges awaited the nascent sector.
Half a decade later and not only are floating, full scale offshore wind turbines up and running, the early indications are they are surpassing expectations. Taken alongside the startling reduction in the cost of conventional offshore wind farms - which meant developers were able to place bids for projects at a price well below the government's £100/MWh target three years earlier than expected - the offshore wind industry is emerging as one of the fastest maturing infrastructure sectors in history.
This week's news from energy giant Statoil and Abu Dhabi-based investor and developer Masdar is a case in point. The companies confirmed their Hywind Scotland joint venture floating offshore wind farm has not only successfully completed its first three months of operation, but it is also performing significantly better than expected.
The wind farm, which is located 25 kilometres off the coast of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire has been powering around 20,000 households, since it was launched last October.
The companies said that it has successfully navigated its first winter, withstanding one hurricane, one winter storm and waves as high as 8.2 metres, all the while performing above expectations.
A typical capacity factor for an offshore wind farm in winter stands at 45-60 per cent. Hywind Scotland achieved an average of around 65 per cent over the three month period.
The strong performance appears to have been credited in part to a purpose-built pitch motion controller integrated with the turbine's control system, which mitigates excessive movement. The system allowed the turbine to keep operating in relatively high winds and when wind became too strong and it had to shut down for safety reasons. It was able to automatically power up again as soon as the wind speeds dropped to a safe level again.
Bader Al Lamki, executive director for clean energy at Masdar, said the results were not just encouraging for the project, but the industry as a whole. "These outstanding results illustrate the durability of floating wind technology and its ability to perform safely and above target in the toughest conditions," he said. "The extremely encouraging performance of Hywind Scotland is positive news for the development of future floating wind projects with our partners, and supports ongoing efforts to improve the cost efficiency of floating wind."
His comments were echoed by Statoil's executive vice president for New Energy Solutions Irene Rummelhoff, who predicted the technology could open up whole new markets for offshore wind developers. "Knowing that up to 80 per cent of the offshore wind resources globally are in deep waters (+60 meters) where traditional bottom fixed installations are not suitable, we see great potential for floating offshore wind, in Asia, on the west coast of North America and in Europe," she said. "We are actively looking for new opportunities for the Hywind technology."
Crucially, the companies are also confident the cost of the technology can fall sharply. Conventional offshore wind farms have recently bid for price support contracts at levels as low as £57.50/MWh, half the level recorded just four years ago. But Statoil and Masdar have set an ambition of delivering power from floating wind farms at a cost of just €40-60/MWh by 2030 - a level that would make it cost competitive with most forms of renewables, only with a fraction of the planning challenges. "This is an ambitious, but realistic target," said Rummelhoff. "Optimised design, larger and more efficient turbines, technology development and larger wind parks will drive down costs, improve infrastructure and logistics."
And it is not just wind turbines looking to take advantage of the benefits associated with floating technologies. Earlier this month, Offshore Wind Consultants Limited (OWC) announced it has teamed up with German company Multiversum GmbH (Multiversum) to pioneer new floating laser-based wind measurement technologies, which will help developers identify the best sites for new offshore wind farms at lower cost.
"Traditional metocean measurement towers are insufficient to protect the profit margins of modern offshore wind farm developments," said John MacAskill, business development director of Offshore Wind Consultants Limited (OWC). As a result, OWC and Multiversum have teamed up to deliver a new generation of fixed and floating LiDAR (light detection and ranging) measurements. "Floating LiDAR technology is established within the offshore sector, offering reliable recording of location-specific data on site, at significantly lower costs," said Detlef Stein, Multiversum's LiDAR expert. "However, there is room for improvement of the correct interpretation and ultimate exploitation of this data."
Meanwhile, solar developers are also looking to get in on the act. Utrecht University announced this week it is leading a consortium to assess the viability of the first floating offshore solar plant.
ECN, TNO, MARIN, TAQA and Oceans of Energy have teamed up with the University to explore plans to build an offshore solar array prototype 15 kilometres off the Dutch coast near The Hague.
Experts have argued that developing solar farms offshore would overcome onshore planning objections, while the cooling effect of sea water is known to improve yields from solar panels. Advocates of the nascent technology have also suggested solar arrays could be located between offshore turbines, increasing power output while minimising disruption for fishing fleets and curbing maintenance costs.
"Offshore, the seawater provides a strong cooling effect," explained Utrecht University solar-energy expert Wilfried van Sark. "As a result, the yield of a solar panel there is expected to be around fifteen per cent higher than it would be on land. Yet there are other factors that negatively impact yield as well. The solar panels will at times be underwater - when the waves reach heights of ten metres, this is unavoidable. The panels will wobble a bit, too. The impact of those dynamic shifts in tilt angle hasn't yet been studied, either."
The three year project will be supported by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and should result in 2,500 square metres of solar panels being installed in the North Sea. The technical challenges the project is likely to face are significant, but if the example set by Hywind is anything to go by there are reasons to be confident that they can be overcome.
"What we intend to do here in three years' time is remarkable and has never been done before," said Allard van Hoeken, founder of initiator Oceans of Energy. "While solar farms have been constructed on inland bodies of water before, they have never been built offshore because of the difficulty of the undertaking. After all, it's a place where you're dealing with huge waves and other destructive forces of nature. With the knowledge and experience of these Dutch knowledge institutions and businesses from the offshore industry, however, we are convinced we will succeed."
Given the pace of progress made by the offshore renewables sector over the past decade you can understand his confidence.
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