Deep water dreams in a moribund market

No less than two big oil companies are working on grandiose schemes to float wind farms off the coast of Norway, even though the country's wind market is moribund. But that detail is apparently not enough to deter Hydro and Statoil from using their offshore expertise to find new ways of harnessing energy at sea.

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Finding ways to float wind turbines well out to sea in deep waters is all the rage among oil companies in Norway, even though the national wind market has died a death at the hands of government

No less than two big oil companies are working on grandiose schemes to float wind farms off the coast of Norway, even though the country's wind market is moribund. But that detail is apparently not enough to deter Hydro and Statoil from using their offshore expertise to find new ways of harnessing energy at sea. The wind power market in Norway was brought to a grinding halt last year when the current centre-right government came to power. With prime minister Jens Stoltenberg a declared staunch supporter of the country's robust oil and gas industry, the future for Norwegian wind power is looking bleak (Windpower Monthly, April 2007).

The best known of the two floating wind turbine schemes, thanks to a flurry of publicity this summer when Siemens announced its involvement in the project, has been around for a couple of years. Oil and aluminium behemoth Hydro floated its Hywind concept in 2005, describing a system of wind turbines in deep offshore waters attached to bobbing concrete bases pinned to the sea floor by three steel cables -- similar to how oil rigs are stationed. The company has reportedly sunk NOK 20 million (EUR 2.5 million) into developing and testing it. Siemens agreed in July to supply the single turbine for a pilot project, to be installed near Karmøy island in south-western Norway sometime around 2009. Costs for the project are estimated at EUR 25 million, but neither Hydro nor Siemens will disclose how the investment is being divided between them.

Meanwhile, SWAY, a Norwegian start-up, is working on a competing technology with what it said is a lighter floating construction, with turbines on floating legs attached to the sea bed by single cables, to be installed quite near Hywind's Karmøy spot around 2010. Norway's state-owned Statoil recently bought an interest in SWAY.

While these two separate projects percolate, Hydro also agreed at the end of last year to merge its oil and gas business with Statoil, an exercise that might be completed this year. Hydro's Lars Nermoen says it is too soon to say how what he calls floating technology's "competence cluster" will be affected.

According to Øyvind Isachsen, head of the Norwegian Wind Energy Association (NORWEA), Norway's sudden interest in floating wind stations offshore is fine, as long as the government also works to reactivate the moribund market. "It's a good thing, yes. I love floating platforms and I think the government is going to invest a lot of money into [them], but I don't want it to turn into Norwegian wind power's greatest enemy," Isachsen says. "In Norway I say we've got to learn to walk, with land-based wind first, then we can wade into offshore in shallow waters, and only then can we get into floating turbines."

Wrong bet

Isachsen is also wary of what he calls "thorium syndrome," in which the Norwegian government puts its bets on floating turbines, an unproven and ten-year distant technology similar to thorium-powered nuclear plants, rather than proven and affordable onshore wind.

Statoil and Hydro are clearly interested in applying their expertise in oil rig and tanker technology to exploiting the strong steady winds found at sea. But another reason is the potential for wind to become an alternative source of electricity for existing rigs, which are currently powered by carbon-belching gas turbines, says Isachsen. "Approximately one-third of Norway's carbon dioxide emissions are from the oil industry and many platforms use crude gas in their turbines -- very polluting," Isachsen says. "You can see how supplying clean power to the oil industry could be one of the great functions of offshore floating turbines." Norway is not the only country that has hit upon the concept of wind power platforms to serve oil rigs: a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher last year released an idea for floater-mounted turbines specifically linked to rigs.

Siemens' role

Hydro's Hywind design currently consists of a turbine base in the form of an 80 metre tall steel column with a 120 metre concrete column floating below. Hydro says it believes this "spar buoy" construction could be suitable for water depths of 200 to 700 metres. Siemens' chief technology officer, Henrik Stiesdal, says a standard turbine will be used for the pilot project. Siemens will be responsible for controlling turbine dynamics, including what he calls the "adaptive regulation" needed at gusty deep-sea locations. By around 2013, Hydro expects to see floating wind plants using turbines with ratings of 5 MW, not only in Norway but in other locations such as Japan and the US.

SWAY's design, meanwhile, is maximized for sea depths between 80 and 300 metres. It features a hollow tower that is stabilised by 2000 tonnes of ballast at the bottom and anchored by a single cable to the sea floor. SWAY has been working on a prototype, supported by money from Shell Technology Norway and the Norwegian Research Council. It recently raised a NOK 150 million cash infusion (EUR 18.8 million) from Statoil and power company Lyse Energi. SWAY chief financial office Michael Forland says SWAY's design is based on a 5 MW turbine, though he declines to name the potential technology supplier.

Both Hydro and SWAY are planning their pilot projects in the waters between Norway's south-western coast and Utsira island, on which Hydro already has two onshore turbines and a wind-to-hydrogen generation project. Lyse Energi has submitted an application to Norway's energy directorate (NVE) for a 50-turbine floating wind power station in the seas west of Utsira.

One of the main advantages of floating turbines in deep water is that they can be placed out of sight of people who do not want to look of them. The unresolved downside is the expense of long distance grid connections. Realistically, the technology is a decade away, acknowledges Siemens' Stiesdal. "There is no doubt that there will be no real market for floating structures in five years; that is simply too early," he says. "However, in ten years the picture may be different."

Saving face

Meantime Norway's wind development is trundling along, with projects supported under the now defunct program of 25% capital grants still coming up. According to NVE, about 150 MW is on the way. That will not be enough to reach Norway's goal for 2010 of 3 TWh from wind power. The country has about 330 MW in place. A wind production subsidy of NOK 0.08/kWh (EUR 0.01/kWh) is on offer from Stoltenberg's government, but it is not enough to drive a market, say wind project developers.

"I do see a change happening in Norway. The government can't get around the fact that there are even better wind resources than there are hydro resources," Isachsen says. "What we need is a way for the government to save face -- and change the current support scheme from eight cents."

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