Uncharted waters

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Finally, after years of talk and high hopes, something is happening on the offshore wind energy front. The first of five 150 MW demonstration projects in Denmark, Horns Rev, is out to tender, and a tender for the next demo is due this summer (page 34). Meanwhile, a Danish 40 MW project is under construction, along with two small plant in Sweden and one in the UK. Talk of these projects and others in Europe and Japan were the focus of a gathering of experts in Sicily last month at a conference somewhat perplexingly titled Offshore Wind Energy in Mediterranean and Other European Seas (OWEMES).

Not that discussion of concrete activities eclipsed the familiar focus on grandiose plans of thousands of megawatt of offshore plant hovering at the water's edge. The Danish and Dutch governments have set eminently bold goals for steady and massive growth at sea -- 4000 MW in Denmark by 2030, and 1250 MW in the Netherlands by 2020; other countries are getting ready to follow. The industry is perfecting designs of no less than ten huge "offshore" turbines. So far so good, it would seem.

But already by the first coffee break of OWEMES it was apparent that optimism had shifted to realism. For all the talk, only about 30 MW of small demonstration projects are actually operating off the coasts of Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands -- and all of these are in sheltered waters. Compared with Horns Rev, which will face one of the roughest seas in the world, life offshore has been a paddling pool so far. How to go about erecting hundreds of turbines on seabeds only accessible for a brief period of fair weather each year still appears to be a mystery to the industry. Experience so far, as well as the latest research presented at the conference, shows that the more the resource is studied, the more wind developers and manufacturers are finding they need to know.

Governments want these projects built, and the industry has found itself in a high stakes game. Poker faced, the players are trying to establish what is going on without giving their own hands away. Everybody is just waiting for somebody to start.

Bluffing in this poker match was conspicuous at OWEMES, particularly by manufacturers. Tension was also felt between two previously allied partners in Europe: utilities and public authorities. With liberalisation these former colleagues are becoming national rivals -- and the potentially big offshore markets over the neighbouring border are looking like future jackpots. Previously accessible information to the public has become subject to commercial confidence.

Real numbers and hard figures were hidden in several slights of hand. Speakers estimated the cost of taking wind to sea without getting specific. One said operation and maintenance (O&M) is expected to be 15% of a total offshore project's price, with turbines and foundations at 30%. Another claimed O&M will contribute 23% to the cost of energy, with turbines and towers at 42%. Outside the conference hall, delegates discussed this topic passionately. Disappointment at the lack of real data was evident among those who came to gather facts rather than estimates.

The missing players

OWEMES also showed that the wind sector is in deep water on the technical aspects of constructing and maintaining plant offshore. So far, wind has been blazing ahead solo in its research and testing, discovering new problems at every step, but not being willing to expand the game and let in more players. For such high stakes, it's a risky strategy.

Another energy sector has already been through many of these issues. So far, wind seems to have turned it a blind eye. Wind, meet your old arch rival, offshore oil. Here is experience at sea, skill with politicians, and most importantly, expertise with the bottom line. Oil companies have already begun to move toward green power recently, and this is wind's chance to invite them into the game while it can still do so on its own terms.

The players who sit back and wait for less risky times will eventually join the game, but they will be buying their chips from the ones who blazed the way. The first player, Danish utility Elsam, deals the cards with the first major tender this month for Horns Rev.

Poker, anyone?

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