Hywind points floating offshore in right direction

WORLDWIDE: Recent reports of Statoil's Hywind Scotland project, the world's first commercial floating wind farm, achieving 65% capacity factors over the winter have provided another boost to the spirits of the floating-wind community.

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Although capacity factors are likely to fall over the less windy months ahead, this remains a great start for this pioneering project and clearly demonstrates the potential for floating offshore wind. Despite this success, offshore-wind plans remain dominated by fixed foundations.  

Fixed offshore wind has established itself as a significant part of the energy mix in countries that have been able to present a clear and stable policy, and defined, coherent consenting processes. This has, in turn, led to the development of an experienced supply chain. There remains plenty of potential in global offshore-wind growth using fixed foundations, especially in the US, France and the Baltics.

But to become a truly global industry, offshore wind needs viable floating-foundation technologies to expand into areas currently inaccessible or uneconomic for fixed foundations. For some countries, such as those with a narrow continental shelf, floating foundations offer the only opportunity for large-scale offshore-wind deployment. As many of these countries also have a dependence on imported energy, fuel or on nuclear power, they have the motive as well as the means for early floating-wind deployments.  

To help the offshore-wind industry realise this potential additional growth, floating wind needs a pipeline of commercial projects to be developed, moving away from the current reliance on demo projects.

As with most new technologies, developers of wind farms with floating foundations are currently caught on the horns of a dilemma. If they could build a significant pipeline, costs would fall as economies of scale and reduced risk come into play. But without reduced costs, they will struggle to build a significant commercially viable pipeline.

Any support mechanisms developed by governments or other enablers for floating foundations need to go beyond encouraging demo projects and aim to accelerate the development of subsequent early commercial-scale projects. The apparent, albeit still early, success of the Hywind project can only help floating technology to move from technology that is seen as "interesting but high risk" to "effective and worth investing in" by key market stakeholders, especially finance houses.

A healthy commercial pipeline would lead to the kind of investment that creates jobs and boosts economies on a local as well as national level. Demo projects are a useful stepping stone in animating the supply chain and flagging opportunities, which can give a short-term advantage to local players. But any advantage will be short-lived, unless a commercial pipeline is developed, as others develop their own expertise and supply chains.

Competing as equals

Floating-wind-technology developers have expressed confidence that, once matured through early commercial projects, floating projects at gigawatt-scale can be competitive in auctions. Opening a round of sites where floating projects can bid alongside fixed ones allows the market to decide which sites are the most competitive, rather than distort market forces with targeted support.

As the floating pipeline develops and costs fall, it is likely that floating and fixed foundations will become competitive, as well as complementary technologies. The ability to be deployed in deeper water with better wind conditions is not the only advantage of floating wind farms. The turbine set-up is easier, and the environmental impact is lower, due to the absence of piling operations. True cost parity between the two types could see floating foundations deployed where currently only fixed foundations would be considered.

Participation from policymakers, investors, researchers and industry is vital to the success of floating offshore wind. Policymakers need to create frameworks to ensure technology development is facilitated by private investment. Investors need to recognise the long-term potential and profitability for floating offshore wind. Innovators need to focus on cost and risk reduction across the entire offshore-wind project cycle. This includes whole-system modelling and optimisation, taking well-characterised site conditions into account, and learning from wind resource and power-output measurements from early projects. The industry needs to continue to collaborate and, in the longer term, to consolidate to bring the best technologies together at reasonable total cost and risk. The industry also needs to provide transparency regarding cost and risk to other stakeholders.

Giles Hundleby is a director of BVG Associates

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