New California Gold Rush beckons wind developers off coast

May 20, 2016 by Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Bloomberg News

When turbines start spinning at the first U.S. offshore wind farm near Rhode Island later this year, some energy developers will already be eyeing a bigger prize.

There's a steadier, harder blowing off the California coast. Those reliable Pacific gusts could yield nearly a terawatt of electricity, 13 times the capacity of all the now installed on land in the U.S. - without consuming real estate or blocking anyone's views.

But Mother Nature isn't going to make it easy. The continental shelf plunges fast and deep off the West Coast, making it impossible to install conventional turbines into a seabed hundreds of feet under water. Some developers think they've found the solution: harnessing this renewable resource with technology borrowed from the fossil-fuel industry to keep turbines afloat.

"We can't fix turbines into the ocean floor out there," said Nancy Sopko, manager of advocacy and federal legislative affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. "To tap into that great offshore wind potential, we're going to need these floating structures."

The Department of Energy is expected to decide next month whether to award some $40 million to as many as five floating wind projects that have already won previous funding. And the Interior Department will soon ask if there's commercial interest in leasing Pacific waters near California and Hawaii - a critical step toward future floating wind projects there.

The technology is in its early days. Globally, there are just 15.33 megawatts of floating wind capacity, mostly coming from a handful of pilot projects involving one or two turbines, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That's less than a percent of the total 11.6 gigawatts of capacity from traditional wind projects in waters around the world.

More are on the way. Seattle-based developer Trident Winds LLC is aiming to float some 100 offshore wind systems about 15 miles off the central California coast, near the city of Morro Bay. The project, which would be developed over the next decade, would link up with existing electric infrastructure, funneling power from the turbines to a decommissioned PG&E Corp. power plant.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management just completed an initial review of Trident Winds' request for a lease at the site, which would be the first wind development in federal waters off California. But permitting may take years as it would be subject to reviews by the bureau and at least two state agencies.

Meanwhile, Statoil ASA is taking advantage of its experience designing and building some of the world's biggest and most complex offshore oil facilities to erect a floating wind farm off the coast of Scotland. The project, expected to go online in 2017, involves five 6-megawatt turbines.

The company - Norway's largest oil producer - hasn't launched any floating wind ventures in the U.S., but during a recent swing through Washington and New York, a Statoil executive was unabashed in highlighting the opportunity. "We think the U.S. is ripe for offshore wind," said Irene Rummelhoff, executive vice president of new energy solutions. "We are seeing potential in the Northeast. We love California."

For wind developers, California has special appeal not just because of the strong gusts buffeting its coast, but also a new law that requires state utilities to derive half of their electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2030 - up from about 20 percent now.

Trident Winds Co-Founder Alla Weinstein, a former Honeywell engineer who ran another wind company, Principle Power Inc., until February 2015, said floating projects also can capitalize on lower installation costs than their conventional cousins, which are installed with steel pilings into the sea floor.

Traditional offshore turbines must be customized to account for varying water depth and soil conditions. Installing them is a time-consuming task that requires specialized vessels. It took roughly 200 workers four months to install five jacket foundations at a 30-megawatt wind farm near Block Island, R.I. Turbines still need to be put in place before that project can go online as expected later this year.

By contrast, floating wind systems can generally be assembled on shore and then towed to sea where mooring lines are all that's needed to tether them to the ocean floor.

"I don't need the boats. I don't need the cranes. I don't need the equipment that's going to cost a lot of money," Weinstein said. "You just need a simple anchor handling vessel to do all the installation, because everything's done onshore."

Statoil's Rummelhoff envisions cost-effective, mass fabrication of the wind production systems. "Eventually, when this is industrialized, you can imagine just having a factory popping these out, and they'll all be the same," she said.

Floating foundations cost about eight times more than seafloor-based supports for their conventional counterparts, according to BNEF. But they can be reused to support replacement turbines when old ones reach the end of their quarter-century lifespan.

"Every 20 or 25 years, no matter what you do, you have to replace the turbine," said Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center. Since the biggest expenses of offshore wind projects are foundations and associated infrastructure - not the turbines - floating designs that allow reuse of those expensive structures are more cost-effective.

One of floating wind's other benefits just can't be seen. Literally. The projects disappear when installed a dozen or more miles from shore, appeasing residents who fret about spinning blades spoiling their ocean views. Such opposition helped topple the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts, and presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fought the construction of a wind farm near his luxury golf resort in Scotland.

Offshore wind projects aren't free from environmental criticism. Fishermen and conservationists have warned that some projects could disturb seabirds, marine mammals and fish spawning grounds.

But the major challenge is cost. Floating wind could cost around $8.95 million per megawatt by 2020 - more than double the $4.03 million per megawatt projected for conventional offshore, bottom-fixed - said BNEF analyst Tom Harries.

Those price projections are pegged to small-scale demonstration projects with sometimes a single turbine in the water - even though they shoulder many of the same costs as large wind farms in terms of permitting and infrastructure. A recent Statoil floating project got costs lower - to $7.8 million per megawatt - by using more than one turbine and drawing on lessons learned from an earlier venture, Harries said.

Cost concerns may be throwing off Seattle-based Principle Power Inc.'s plan to install up to five 6-megawatt floating turbines off Coos Bay, Ore. The so-called WindFloat Pacific project received Energy Department funding but so far hasn't found willing buyers for the power it would generate after utilities in Oregon said it would be too expensive.

"If floating wind wants to seriously join the offshore party it needs to scale up with more megawatts," Harries said. "More importantly, it needs to reduce the size and weight of the foundations in order to bring down costs. Otherwise it will remain an expensive experiment."

Explore further: Companies propose deep-water wind farms off Hawaii shores (Update)

Related Stories

Vestas in $1.2B deal to build huge wind power farm in Norway

February 23, 2016

Danish company Vestas Wind Systems A/S says it has been awarded a 1.1 billion euro ($1.2 billion) deal to supply 278 wind turbines for Norwegian power company Statkraft and its partners for a wind power project in central ...

Reducing the cost of wind energy for a renewable future

April 22, 2016

A 100 percent renewable energy scenario is possible in Europe, but to achieve it, we need to make offshore wind more competitive and start redesigning our energy systems, says world expert Brian Vad Mathiesen

Recommended for you

A novel approach of improving battery performance

September 18, 2018

New technological developments by UNIST researchers promise to significantly boost the performance of lithium metal batteries in promising research for the next-generation of rechargeable batteries. The study also validates ...

Germany rolls out world's first hydrogen train

September 17, 2018

Germany on Monday rolled out the world's first hydrogen-powered train, signalling the start of a push to challenge the might of polluting diesel trains with costlier but more eco-friendly technology.

Technology streamlines computational science projects

September 15, 2018

Since designing and launching a specialized workflow management system in 2010, a research team from the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has continuously updated the technology to help computational ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) May 21, 2016
If they built solar updraft towers instead, they could capture much more energy per inch of blade. The warm, humid air coming out of the things would also add to the downwind rainfall totals. If you build enough, you could counter any drought nature could ever throw at us.
1 / 5 (5) May 22, 2016
The offshore and unseen turbines (pronounced "tur-bins", not tur-bynes), can replace the unsightly and visible oil platforms off the Calif coast.
Uncle Ira
5 / 5 (5) May 22, 2016
The offshore and unseen turbines (pronounced "tur-bins", not tur-bynes),
Well according the Webster-Skippy, the Oxford-Skippy, and the American-Heritage-Skippy, "tur-bynes" it the first choice and yours is the second choice.

So if it would not be too much trouble Cher, would you explain how you come to the "not tur-bynes" rule you postumed there?

I did not down vote you, I really want to know why "tur-bynes" is not correct.
4.2 / 5 (5) May 22, 2016
Ira, its for the same reason he can't pronounce "almonds".
4.2 / 5 (5) May 22, 2016
Late Edit -- Oopers.
Uncle Ira
4.2 / 5 (5) May 23, 2016
Ira, its for the same reason he can't pronounce "almonds".

I can feel another "I made you look" coming up, eh? But then he must like making peoples look "tur-bins, not tur-bynes" up, that is one he likes to put up a lot to show his "experience". The one where he said a rocket car was not a car because the engines were not connected to the wheels was good too (that one he argued and squirmed over for a good two dozen postums.)

Oh yeah, I almost forget. Speaking of "tur-bins, not tur-bynes", he also don't like you to call windmills windmills. He would prefer if you would show more respect and call them "tur-bins", (I wish I had the link for that one, that went on for a couple days.)
1 / 5 (4) May 23, 2016
But I can, having grown up in almond country, and having a tree at home. The L is pronounced like the L in Salmon. I have no idea what you folk who live in the mud call them, probably what the advertisers in New York City tell you to call them.

And the turbine pronunciation is from the industry. We used a lot of them of all kinds at PG&E. Those of you who got to know them from New York ad agencies will call them something else.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.