Future viability depends on technological advances

In 2000, around 80MW of offshore wind power was installed in European coastal waters. Today that figure stands at just short of 4GW and, if all plans are realised, it will reach 11GW by 2030. Technology, political will and the need for low-carbon electricity have made a pipedream reality.

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But anyone who believes that offshore wind's rise is inevitable simply because technology makes it possible would be wrong. Human ingenuity makes almost anything possible at a price, but energy comprises a broad mix of technologies, and the logistically difficult offshore wind sector has competitors that could yet nudge it aside in favour of lower-risk alternatives.

That means the technology offered must be financially attractive for operators and investors, as well as prove it can deliver consistent and reliable electricity generation over the lifetime of the wind farm.

The launch last month of the government-sponsored UK offshore-wind cost-reduction task force is recognition that even one of the world's fastest growing offshore markets cannot be immune from the economic pressures bearing down on the sector.

Keeping costs down

Finding ways to utilise technology and best practice to maximise return on investment is a way to ensure that other energy technologies do not usurp offshore wind as the low-carbon power-generation technology of choice over the next few decades. Those other technologies present real economic threats. As Professor Dieter Helm, an Oxford academic and European Commission adviser, said earlier this year: "Offshore wind makes new nuclear look cheap to build."

Technology, deployed with verve and innovation can help tip the low-carbon energy balance in the next decade in favour of offshore wind. But it must be deployed across the supply chain from foundation to vessel, cable to port, and through to maintenance.

There are many areas where technology can help to cut installation and operating costs. Foundations, cables and turbines all have to be reinvented to a large extent to cope with the rigours of 20-plus years of operation in a hostile maritime environment. The Dutch experience of using its long heritage of taming the sea across the offshore supply chain, particularly in the field of foundations, suggests that companies from the Netherlands will continue to play a prominent role.

Moving beyond steel monopile-type foundations to more innovative designs suitable for deeper waters is an area currently seeing innovation, even to the extent of floating foundations which, although still at an early stage of development, are probably needed to make deep water deployment viable, for example in the Atlantic waters of North America.

Perhaps the biggest cost burden to emerge as offshore wind matures is in the area of cabling. Cable failures represent a significant portion of insurance claims lodged by offshore operators. While the industry continues with updates and improvements to both cables and installation equipment, there is a call for industry-wide standards to govern this area.

Current turbine-technology developments by major players are showcased here. While criticisms of quality of some products on the market have emerged, this emerging sector does not yet have the track record to accurately predict how turbines, and indeed other equipment, will perform after 20 or 30 years in the water.

Supply chain

As well as the generation and transmission hardware, technology is also being brought to bear in a support role. The kind of vessels that have served the offshore oil and gas industry so well over the past few decades may need enhancement to serve offshore wind. A debate is currently under way between those who advocate single-use specialist vessels for distinct offshore roles and those who see efficiencies in new vessel designs that enable a number of tasks to be performed offshore at the same time. And in the maintenance field, a floating multi-purpose vessel capable of sustaining workforces offshore for long periods of time is offered as a logistical solution to offshore wind's unique needs.

Technology is emerging across the supply chain to make offshore wind power in more remote and deeper waters possible. The question now is whether the cost of that technology proves prohibitive to investors. Just because it can be done does not mean it will be done as alternative forms of electricity generation are seen as lower risk with a quicker return, and easier to achieve.

Despite the triple imperative of security of supply, affordable energy and the drive towards low-carbon generation, offshore wind must earn its place in the sustainable energy generation mix by proving that technological innovation is an affordable option.

Paul Garrett is offshore editor for Windpower Monthly.

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