Viewpoint: Floating technology is key to making offshore global

Offshore wind farms using floating foundations are a hot topic in the industry at the moment, dominating several show agendas and taking up many column inches in the press. Why is a technology that is still in the demonstration stage generating so much excitement?

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Is that excitement justified or is it, in part, a result of the hyping activities of some proponents of floating foundations?

To be commercially viable for development, deeper water sites (60 metres and more) require reliable and durable floating foundations to be available at a competitive cost,including installation.

In our recent study for WindEurope, Unleashing Europe's offshore wind potential: a new resource assessment, the baseline scenario identified an economically attractive resource potential of 2,600TWh/year across the Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea and North Sea using the technology we expect to exist in 2030.

Turbines mounted on floating foundations would produce 14% of this, but account for only 1% of the resource potential with a levelised cost of energy (LCOE) below €60/MWh.

In our upside scenario, however, more than 70% of the 3,400TWh/year additional economically attractive potential would be delivered by turbines mounted on floating foundations. Nearly half of this additional resource potential is below EUR60/MWh.

With so much potential in the baseline scenario from fixed foundations, some might conclude floating foundations are not needed in the Atlantic, Baltic and North seas. Such thinking has a good chance of being wrong.

As cost reduction continues, offshore wind policies will drive quicker installation of projects, and, as a result, the volumes to be installed by 2030 are more likely to be close to our upside scenario. In this scenario, floating costs are also falling, with the extra volumes and learning from experience having an even greater impact for floating wind farms than for those with fixed foundations.

It is possible, therefore, that Europe will have developed cost-competitive floating offshore wind technology by 2030, and will be deploying significant volumes in European waters, especially in the Mediterranean, but also the Atlantic, northern North Sea, and possibly the Baltic Sea if solutions that tolerate sea ice can be developed. But the biggest opportunity is the technology's potential application in other markets.

With more limited access to shallow waters around the coast of North America - especially the US West Coast and Caribbean islands - and in key potential growth markets in Asia — notably Japan and Taiwan — the clamour for competitive floating technology by the industry is understandable.

It would appear that for offshore wind to become a truly global industry, responsible for a significant share of global generation, floating foundations are essential.

Chicken and egg situation

As with most new technology, floating foundations currently face the paradox that to be cost-effective, deployment needs to be at significant scale, but this will only happen when cost effectiveness is achieved.

Floating foundations have several key current advantages that may help to resolve this paradox. First, the cost of capital is at historically very low levels, and generally expected to remain so.

Second, many early floating projects will be benchmarked against relatively expensive alternative ways of generating electricity, such as diesel generation (in the case of islands) or nuclear (in the case of Japan), and where wind farms on fixed foundations, onshore wind or solar energy are not viable options.

Floating foundations suppliers should thus be able to start developing reasonably sized pipelines while proving that the technology works.

The final advantage is that these areas will be in urgent need of electricity-generation capacity as their current infrastructure ages and fuels rise in price.

In some industries, the required cost reduction for floating foundations to be widely adopted might look ambitious. The offshore wind industry has already proven its incredible ability to reduce costs driven by innovation in technology and supply-chain practices.

There is no reason to think the dramatic and successful cost reductions seen in the fixed-foundation offshore wind market cannot be repeated in the floating world.

Of course, no matter how successful floating cost reductions and innovation are, there are many other barriers to fulfilling the potential of floating.

Decisions by policymakers, investors, developers and the supply chain, including those influenced by much wider issues, such as the whole energy system and economic development, will play a major role in determining whether floating offshore wind does merit the amount of attention it is currently getting in the industry.

Giles Hundleby is a director of BVG Associates

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