Offshore - Floating turbines jump queue in Spain

SPAIN: While Spain's strict environmental regulations will keep the country's commercial offshore wind capacity at zero until at least 2014, two Spanish research projects to develop and test next-generation floating turbine technology are set to jump the queue.

The projects, which could have turbines operating by 2012, are being led by Institut de Recerca en Energia de Catalunya (IREC), Catalonia's regional government research and development institute, and leading developer Iberdrola Renovables.

IREC is developing what it claims is the world's first publicly run offshore laboratory for testing and certifying wind turbines off northern Spain. The 10-15MW first phase will house three or four turbines in shallow waters, near shore, by late 2011 or early 2012. In the 25-30MW second phase, in 2012-2013, six additional turbines will be installed on floating structures in waters of up to 100 metres deep, around 20 kilometres offshore.

IREC director Antoni Matinez says that once the turbines are up and running, an independent company will validate their use for commercial installations. At the moment, IREC is not revealing the overall estimated investment requirement.

Turbine and offshore structure manufacturers will supply and install their equipment at their own cost, paying a rental fee, but also pocketing sales on power produced. IREC will develop and build the rest, together with companies wishing to join to gain know-how. IREC and partners will also provide a turbine monitoring and certification centre. IREC points to waters just off the Port of Tarragona as the probable test site, but will make a final decision later this year.

"Why floating turbines? Because we're talking about deep waters where it is not viable to lay seabed turbine foundations," says Martinez. For negligible visual impact, turbines need to be positioned 20 kilometres offshore or further. In most European waters, and certainly around the Spanish coast, 20 kilometres offshore means sea depths of 60-150 metres at the lower end of the scale.

Current installed commercial global offshore wind capacity - at around 1.4GW - is nearly all in the shallow North Sea and Baltic Sea at depths of less than 50 metres. There are a handful of turbines in waters of over 40 metres, but all are small R&D projects. And there is just one floating turbine, off the coast of Germany, in the privately owned Alpha Ventus project.

The Catalonian government's industry chief, Antoni Castells, describes the project as one of the most important energy initiatives in the world, because it could potentially open up new and vast offshore opportunities globally. It will also open the seas to Spain's turbine industry, whose three top manufacturers already boast a 16% share of the global onshore market.

Meanwhile, Iberdrola Renovables leads a powerful consortium that has landed a EUR600,000 combined European Union and central government grant for the four-year first phase of the so-called Emerge project. Up until 2013, the project aims to evaluate the viability of floating offshore wind turbines, studying the entire supply chain and life cycle, from design to decommissioning and dismantling. A small-scale prototype will be installed during that period, while a second phase will involve a large-scale demonstrator plant using machines of 4.5MW and upwards and in waters over 60 metres deep.

The all-Spanish consortium includes IREC, as well as wind operator Acciona Energia and turbine manufacturer Ecotecnia. The project's technical boss, Victor Rey, says Emerge will adopt and adapt the design of tried and tested floating-oil and gas-platform designs, held by cables anchored to the seabed. The consortium has already started studying a few sites in Andalucia, Cantabria and Catalonia regions.

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