Floating Offshore Turbines – The Power To Stop Europe From Sinking?

By Alice Vodden, GLOBUS Contributor 

Here at GLOBUS, we’re lucky to be in close collaboration with both academics and students from the Global Sustainable Development Department. It is therefore with much excitement that we are publishing a series of selected pieces from GSD’s 3rd Year module: ‘The Energy Trilemma’, convened by Dr Morakinyo Adetutu.

The third piece in this series explores the immense potential of wind power in Europe’s fight against the climate crisis.


Scotland is renowned for its picturesque highlands and buttery shortbread. Yet since 2017, the construction of the world’s first floating offshore wind farm has given the nation something else to celebrate. Fifteen miles off the coastal town of Peterhead, five wind turbines strike an imposing picture soaring out of the North Sea at a height of 830 feet [1]. Now generating enough energy to power 22,000 homes, the £200 million project marks a monumental moment in energy policy [2]. Scotland is now the world leading nation in floating wind power, with 56% of all the world’s capacity [3].

Like most regions of the world, Europe faces the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously addressing the challenges of climate change, energy security and energy access. With time having never been more pressing, failing to meet key renewable energy targets is simply no longer an option. Governments are constantly seeking opportunities to harness technology and innovation in order to address the challenges that today’s energy landscape presents and build a more competitive energy sector for the future.

It is likely that an array of solutions will be required in order to truly develop a sustainable renewable energy sector, yet in Europe, one innovation looks to show particular promise.

Following a recent publication by Wind Europe – formerly known as the European Wind Energy Association – floating offshore wind may hold the answers to Europe’s greatest energy concerns [4]. Specifically, the development of the floating turbine may provide the solution to one of the many dilemmas the continent continues to face today – the development of renewable energy sources for the future.

ypes of offshore wind turbine foundations (reproduced from ref. 102, source Principl
Figure 1 : Offshore wind turbine structures. (Source: European Wind Energy Association, (2013) Deep Water: The Next Step for Offshore Wind Energy. Belgium)

So what does floating offshore wind really involve, and does this source of power actually have the potential to help Europe foster a sustainable renewable energy landscape for generations to come?

The New Technology – Floating Offshore Wind

Whist onshore wind energy has been used as a source of power generation for over two thousand years [5], exploiting deep offshore wind has, up until now, remained a highly elusive proposition. Since the 1990s, wind turbines have been constructed in water and fixed to the sea bed using a monopole or tripod structure [6].

Whilst efficient in producing energy, structural limitations have meant that current designs are restricted to less than 50 metres deep [7], thus eliminating any opportunity to capitalise on the space and strong winds on the open sea for large scale electricity generation [8]. This opportunity brought rise to a whole new era of wind technology; the floating offshore wind turbine.

By eliminating the depth constraint and improving the turbine installation process [9], floating foundations have allowed the wind power sector to move offshore and capitalise on the potential power generation arising from deeper waters [10]. As shown in Figure 1, floating structures such as the TLP, Semi-Sub or Spar permit the construction of turbines at much greater depths. Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have also highlighted the importance of learning from existing floating structures used by oil and gas companies, which have demonstrated the long-term survivability and technical feasibility of floating structures [11].

The Water and Wind Duo – Europe’s Blessing

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, as of the end of 2018, the world had nine floating offshore wind installations – four in Japan and 5 in Europe [12]. With many more projects having been announced in Europe, the continent looks to be embracing this technology in the hope that it will prove the cost-efficient, reliable renewable power source it has been after.

As the world’s largest maritime continent and current market leader in offshore wind power [13], Europe’s natural blessing of large coastlines and strong winds coupled with existing strengths and technology in this area have created an incredible opportunity to cement Europe’s leadership in renewables globally [14].

Offshore wind has been identified as one of the leading technology solutions to contribute to the decarbonisation of the European energy system, with a report released by the International Energy Agency predicting that the continent’s offshore wind capacity will grow from almost 20GW in 2019 to nearly 130GW by 2040 [15]. An additional report produced by Wind Europe, an organisation advocating the implementation of wind energy policies highlighted the continent’s current dominance in floating offshore wind, claimed that European companies lead three quarters of the 50+ floating turbine projects worldwide today [16]. Figure 2 outlines the upcoming floating offshore wind projects over the next five years in Europe alone – a message to the rest of the world that Europe intends to lead this technological revolution.

But prior to assessing the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that a technological innovation such as offshore floating could bring to the region, it is important to understand the current European energy landscape, particularly in relation to renewable energy. Understanding why Europe really needs to succeed in the floating offshore wind industry is essential in order to better appreciate the implications of implementing this technology in Europe.

Figure 2: Pre-commercial floating offshore wind projects in Europe to be commissioned over the next 5 years (Source: WindEurope, 2018)

“Europe’s natural blessing of large coastlines and strong winds coupled with existing strengths and technology in this area have created an incredible opportunity to cement Europe’s leadership in renewables globally”

Europe’s Renewable Energy Landscape

It would be unfair to say that over the past two decades, Europe has failed to make significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy consumption. Statistics from the World Bank Development Indicators [17], shown in Figure 3, highlight the steady increase in renewable energy consumption over time within the European Union, alongside a sustained decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst anyone looking at this graph could be forgiven for thinking that the European Union is a model example in renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as is often the case, the figures do not reveal the entire story.

Figure 3: Renewable Energy Consumption and Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the European Union between 2000 and 2012 (Source: The World Bank, 2019)

Recent analysis published by the European Environment Agency confirmed that whilst Europe may have been on track to meet its 2020 targets on renewables and efficiency, a higher level of progress must be maintained in order to achieve the ambitious targets set out for 2030 [18]. Under the European Commission’s National Energy and Climate Plan published in 2019, by 2030 more than 32% of the region’s energy source should be derived from renewables, an increase in 12% from 2020 [19]. Not an easy task – particularly when considering the inter-country variation in achieving renewable energy targets, leaving the more adept countries to compensate for those lagging behind.

What is clear, however, is that leveraging Europe’s wind power will be essential in order to ensure Europe can reach it’s renewable energy targets and become a world leader in driving the clean energy transition [20].

The only question that remains is whether floating offshore wind really is the technological innovation for the job, or whether the barriers and challenges to overcome when introducing a new form of energy source into the market are too great to overcome.

The Promise of Floating Wind – A New Hope for All?

On paper, the development of floating offshore wind for Europe is an incredibly exciting prospect.

With approximately 80% of offshore wind resources located in waters of more than 60m in depth [21], the potential which floating offshore wind holds in unlocking new renewable energy prospects is unfathomably huge. With winds generally more consistent and stronger as the distance from the shore increases [22], the opportunity for the floating offshore wind turbine to become the energy innovation of the century is looking increasingly promising. And even when the feared concept of ‘money’ is brought into the picture, floating offshore wind turbines certainly give fixed structures used in shallower waters a run for their money. As floating turbines are built on land before being towed out to see, the installation process is significantly quicker and inherently less dependent on weather and sea conditions [23]. This is contrast to the much more time consuming process involving the installation of fixed structures out at sea [24], and also provides the option for turbines to be towed back to shore to carry out any maintenance work if required. Academics from the University of Strathclyde concluded that the reduced amount of work required to be performed offshore would have wider benefits too, including a reduced health and safety risk [25].

“Floating offshore wind provides a huge opportunity for new businesses including an increased export potential for Europe to the rest of the world”

Theoretically, the potential of floating offshore wind to contribute to Europe’s renewable energy targets is huge. However, practically speaking, the extent to which this potential could really be translated into reality in practice is difficult to assess, and highly dependent upon the ability of the countries themselves to overcome some significant challenges.

Setting sail across the rocky seas…

They say if it were easy, everyone would do it. And the fact that very few countries have yet to capitalise on this opportunity is indeed a reflection of the numerous challenges that exploiting floating offshore wind power presents.

From a technical perspective, there is no escaping the challenges inherent when dealing with an emerging technological innovation. The lack of well-established construction methods means that whilst floating turbines are not required to be specifically designed for the terrain in which they will be installed, there are difficulties in exploiting this source of power [26].

Researchers from the Institute of Energy at the Cardiff University School of Engineering found that the greater distance from shore has been identified as a key area for consideration, with a significantly higher amount of cabling required in order to transmit the power back to civilisation on land [27]. Scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology added that whilst the installation process for floating turbines is much simpler than that for bottom-fixed structures, fixing the cables of the turbine to the seabed can be a difficult process, particularly in waters deeper than 100 metres [28]. The movements of the turbine and the floating substructure can also increase the strain on the dynamic section of the cables and consequently render them increasingly prone to wear and in need of maintenance [29]. Experts have also warned that higher wind speeds further out to sea may make maintenance and installation of floating wind turbines difficult from both a financial and logistical viewpoint [30].

Figure 5: Major funding programmes offering innovation support to floating wind projects in the UK. (Source: Hannon et al., 2019) Note: LCITP – Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme; ERDF – European Regional Development Fund; GIB – Green Investment Bank; EIB – European Investment Bank; CfD – Contracts for Difference

From an infrastructural perspective, both fixed and floating wind turbines run into serious issues. The operations and economics of all forms of wind farms are highly reliant on the capacity of ports and availability of networks at the point of connection [31]. As an emerging technology that has yet to have the opportunity to be developed at any significant scale, to say Europe’s coastal infrastructure in it’s current state was poorly equipped would be an understatement. A piece of research conducted by the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences concluded that with the majority of Europe’s ports not configured in a way to support any form of offshore wind power source, ensuring a reliable and economically-viable grid connection when produced at scale would prove to be a challenge – perhaps one of the greatest when it comes to exploiting this resource [32].

Alongside these technical and infrastructural considerations, as with most things – politics also has a tendency to complicate and delay situations even further…

Emerging industries are typically dependent on a large amount of funding in order to acquire sufficient capital, and whilst it’s all plain sailing when the political world is at peace, as most have experienced over the past few years, this is no longer a very common occurrence.

The current political climate in the UK is a prime example – a country where it’s not particularly hard to believe that the availability of government funding and grants in recent years has been highly susceptible to change and/or total discontinuation at short notice. Without mentioning the ‘B’ word itself, prolonged political unrest over the past few years has resulted in a highly unworkable funding environment, where attention has been redirected away from key priority areas, such as the development of renewable energy sources in the UK.

As shown in Figure 5, both of the UK’s floating wind projects to date have relied on the Renewables Obligation (RO) [33]. Brought into effect in 2002, the RO was one of the main support mechanisms for large-scale renewable electricity projects in the UK [34]. However, the removal of this scheme in 2017 has forced offshore floating wind developers to become reliant upon the Contracts for Difference as the only significant potential option for a long-term subsidy [35]. With the majority of other funding coming from the European Union, depending on the outcome of certain key political decisions over the coming months, this could further threaten the UK floating wind sector by preventing UK-based developers from accessing the wealth of EU energy innovation funding. This could pose a serious threat to the profitability of UK firms in the industry and their capacity for investing in new products and technologies.

Unfortunately, the challenges do not end there. A further difficulty for the floating offshore wind industry lies in the regulatory and legislative environment. Offshore wind development is driven by policy, with a stable regulatory environment essential in ensuring efficient industrial development [36]. Yet as with most emerging industries, legislative frameworks are typically underdeveloped which can lead to elevated levels of risk and uncertainty in relation to both markets and technology [37]. As such, it can be incredibly difficult for firms to develop a commercial strategy with regards to both current and future development, whilst also making the floating offshore wind market as a whole a less attractive proposition for investors.

The path ahead…

It is becoming increasingly clear that floating offshore wind really could be the technological innovation enabling Europe to become leaders of the renewable energy world. But in order to make this a European success story, much still needs to be done.

A stable policy environment is critical to ensure continued industrial development within the sector [38]. Inherent within this is the need for governments to identify clearer political priorities and establish a strategic direction in order to shape the future of the country’s renewable energy policy. Inclusion of floating offshore wind within national energy and climate plans may assist in ensuring the creation of a stable and supportive regulatory framework, providing the opportunity for this source of power to contribute towards the region’s renewable energy targets.

A holistic understanding of the energy landscape within a nation as a whole is also essential when assessing opportunities for the future development of floating offshore wind. In Norway for example, strong petroleum incentives are currently challenging the diversification of many renewable energy sources, including offshore wind [39]. Such scenarios should be recognised as important points for political consideration, particularly in light of the ambitious renewable energy targets required to be attained in the coming years.

Finally, whilst Europe may have been the first to capitalise upon this technological opportunity, they are most definitely not the only region investing in this form of renewable energy. As prices continue to fall thanks to technical improvements, economies of scale and maturation of supply chains, floating offshore wind is increasingly gaining traction in emerging markets [40].

Countries with existing suitable port infrastructure and experience in the oil and gas industry in particular are likely to be early adopters, especially across areas blessed with high offshore wind speeds.

So does floating offshore wind really hold the power to stop Europe from sinking? In reality, the true yet disappointing fact is that it is too early to tell. Whilst it’s potential success has been proven through projects such as Hywind in Scotland, the extent to which Europe will be able to exploit this innovation and use this form of technology to contribute towards it’s renewable energy targets remains to be seen. What is certain however, is that without technological innovation within the energy sector, the future of our planet for generations to come continues to remain in great danger.


References

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Header Image by Nicholas Doherty at Unsplash

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