Business - Areva on starting blocks for US offshore countdown

US: France-based nuclear giant Areva is busy orchestrating its wind power strategy in the US to be ready to pounce when the offshore wind market takes off. It has begun to line up a supply chain to build its 5MW offshore wind turbine in the US, most likely before 2014.

Patrick Thacker, head of supply chain for the company's wind division in the US, says that although there are no wind turbines yet installed offshore in the US, the various projects under development along the east coast and the Great Lakes show the market is on the verge of breaking out. "There are power purchase agreements in process, as well as various permitting approvals," says Thacker. "That goes beyond lip service, that's real money you can take to the bank."

Areva's wind turbine is a unique offshore-specific machine called Multibrid, originally designed by Aerodyne, one of Germany's most renowned firms. Areva bought a controlling interest in Multibrid GmbH of Bremerhaven, Germany, in 2007 from project developer Prokon Nord for around EUR150 million. Prokon retains 49% ownership.

Multibrid is a hybrid between a traditional multi-stage gearbox turbine and a direct- drive turbine with no gearbox. Instead it uses a large diameter single-stage gearbox. The design theory attempts to marry some of the benefits of each design and mitigate some of their weaknesses. For example, some multi-stage gearbox turbines continue to have long-term reliability concerns with their gearboxes. Direct-drive units obviate that risk by removing the gearbox, which results in considerably higher weight than a similarly classed multi-stage gearbox turbine.

The Multibrid turbine has received high marks in Europe for its innovative design approach, reliability and relatively small nacelle size for such a large output unit. "The Multibrid design platform has proven stable and innovative enough to provide a basis for commercial progress in a maturing industry," says Randy Tinkerman, manager, due diligence at Deutche WindGuard Consulting GmbH.

The German consulting firm's parent is a technical manager for the Alpha Ventus offshore wind project in the North Sea, where six Multibrid turbines are installed and operational. Tinkerman's views are his own and not connected with Alpha Ventus. "It is far too soon for any comprehensive evaluation of the current state of the art, but Areva is one of several companies setting new standards in offshore performance," he says.

The Alpha Ventus site is the only offshore deployment of the Multibrid turbine, but Thacker says Multibrid has hundreds of megawatt of memoranda of understanding contracts with customers that set the groundwork for future delivery contracts. The turbine is designed specifically for offshore use and includes a number of redundant electrical systems so there are backups for parts in case some fail at sea, far from repair technicians.

Thacker says they are happy with the reliability of the turbines. The average availability - the percentage of time annually that a turbine is ready to produce power if adequate wind is available - has been around 98%, and some months 99%.

Areva's supply chain and manufacturing strategy emphasises local manufacture in the US even if shipping from Europe or outsourcing supply chain to China could be cheaper. One issue is the size of the components, which are so large that the company does not really want to move them very far. "The company strategy isn't only about cost," says Thacker. "Our strategy is to be in the local markets where we work. So we're committed to local manufacturing - not just on the wind side, on nuclear as well. Cost is something we know we can manage."

But Thacker admits that cost cutting can be risky. For example, he says, a technology failure at a 100-turbine wind farm in North Dakota would be far cheaper to fix than an equivalent failure at a 100-turbine project offshore.

Supply chain

Areva's timing may seem premature but Tinkerman says manufacturers need to anticipate the US's future offshore market and organise supply chain for future manufacturing. "It makes sense for Areva and others to have begun the process already," says Tinkerman.

"The benefits of in-place infrastructure, including experienced installation and operations-and-maintenance services, as well as the technology supply chain, should not be underestimated."

Areva's wind power strategy is part of a wider move into renewable energy and its emphasis on zero-carbon-emission power production. The company also has a joint venture with US power company Duke Energy on bioenergy. It recently bought Ausra Solar, a US-concentrated solar power company.