Entrepreneurs see hope — and profit — in floating turbines

Source: By John Fialka, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A second phase of offshore wind development is about to get underway in the U.S., starting in Maine, a state that sees its energy future built on a new type of wind turbine. It is one that can float in deeper waters and that may be built more cheaply than existing wind turbines being constructed or planned along most of the U.S. East Coast.

One of the main beneficiaries of what are called “floaters” — turbines that are held by mooring lines attached to anchors in waters deeper than 160 feet — will likely be the U.S. West Coast, where California and Hawaii are planning wind farms and Oregon and Washington are expected to follow.

“This will be a global industry,” predicted Walter Musial, the leading expert on offshore wind for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. At the moment, the business is in its infancy, but he noted that 80% of the world’s offshore waters suitable for wind turbines near major population centers are deep.

The major type of offshore turbines built in Europe and just beginning to rise along the East Coast are installed in shallower waters on fixed foundations that may be too expensive to build in deeper waters. But floaters, which have the added cost-saving advantage of being assembled in nearby ports and then towed out to sea, Musial predicted, will be “close to or near to being cost competitive” with them by 2024.

Floaters are likely to give a major boost to what has already become a large, capital-intensive renewable energy business. According to an estimate by the University of Delaware, the existing fixed-bottom offshore turbines underway or in advanced planning in seven East Coast states involve capital costs of $70 billion and would result in 18.6 gigawatts of electricity — the equivalent output of 18 average-size nuclear power plants — between 2020 and 2030 (Climatewire, July 30).

Unlike fixed-bottom turbines, a business now dominated by European companies, floaters have been pioneered by U.S. innovators, including a team of researchers at the University of Maine. They went to work in 2009 to find an energy source that could save the state from a looming economic crisis because the price of heating oil had risen to $4 a gallon.

If that persisted, noted Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, it would mean a $10,000 annual heating bill, pushing families and communities in northern Maine into poverty during its frozen winters. “It was not sustainable and a big crisis in the state,” he recalled in an interview.

So the team plunged into a plan for a potential solution: Dagher’s dream of a turbine sitting on a base made with hollow, bucketlike concrete floats.

Backed by Maine’s Legislature with one vote short of a unanimous approval and financial help from the U.S. Department of Energy, the team erected a model wind turbine, one-eighth the size of a conventional turbine, and put it on a float. Then the team had a tugboat tow it out to an offshore site.

It was small but strong enough to stand up to powerful winds and crashing waves, and made history in 2013 as the first floatable wind turbine to feed electricity into the U.S. power grid.

On paper that looked impressive because Maine’s offshore wind-making potential is 36 times greater than the state’s total electricity demand. In the following years, not much happened, but recently two serious industry players joined Maine in a $100 million partnership to build a full-size floating turbine near the site.

They are Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp., and RWE Renewables, a subsidiary of a large German electric utility and the second-largest offshore wind company in the world. Maine also has begun meeting with the U.S. Interior Department, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to explore the possibility of other offshore sites that could supply clean power to upper New England.

Now what started as Dagher’s dream has turned into a larger one: “The strength of Maine’s economy, the preservation of our natural resources, the long-term health and well-being of our communities and of future generations depend in great part on our transitioning to clean energy and tackling the threat of climate change,” said Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) in announcing the RWE-Mitsubishi partnership.

The U.S. pioneer on the West Coast is Alla Weinstein, now CEO of a company called Castle Wind, which is proposing to build a floating wind farm with as many as 100 turbines spinning offshore in Morro Bay in central California. When Weinstein, an immigrant from Russia who arrived in 1974 with little command of English and a half-finished college education, first proposed the idea in 2008, the reaction was underwhelming.

“Floating offshore wind?” they asked. “Come back in 15 years,” recalled Weinstein in an interview. “Two years later, we had a demonstration project.”

While Dagher had the state of Maine behind him, Weinstein found only tepid support in California. But she did find two investors willing to finance a demonstration project, a full-size wind turbine on a floating platform to be located offshore from Portugal. It began generating electricity in 2011.

The demonstration helped Weinstein’s first company, Principle Power Inc., build two more floaters in Portugal and another off the coast of Scotland. And Weinstein was selected to be the first president of a new trade association, the European Ocean Energy Association, where new contacts helped her sharpen her next goal, which was to go back and jump-start construction in the deep waters of offshore California.

She left Principle Power in 2015 and later formed Castle Wind, a joint venture with EnBW North America, a subsidiary of one of Germany’s largest energy companies and among the global leaders in offshore wind. Her unsolicited proposal to build a floating wind farm 30 miles off the central California coast has stimulated interest from 13 other potential bidders likely to participate in a federal auction for the lease site early next year.

California offers one of the nation’s biggest renewable energy markets. It has set goals for 50% renewable energy by 2025 and 100% by 2045. It is considering proposals for a second floating wind farm offshore from Humboldt County, 270 miles north of San Francisco.

Weinstein’s old company, Principle Power, located in Emeryville, Calif., is among the companies that hope to sell turbine bases to her new company and others preparing to bid on California’s leases. “Alla is a great client of ours, and we look forward to working with her,” said João Metelo, who succeeded her as the CEO of Principle Power.

Unlike other offshore wind turbine technologies, which have been mainly designed in Europe, Principle Power’s patented “WindFloat” bases were invented in Berkeley, Calif. They operate on a system that distributes water to each of the turbine’s three floating ballasts to keep the spinning turbine upright regardless of the pitch and roll of the ocean.

The technology has matured into wind farms in waters off Portugal, Scotland and France, and Metelo now expects the world’s biggest projects to rise in the deeper waters off the West Coast and Hawaii. “She’s made great things for the industry,” Metelo said, referring to Weinstein.

Offshore wind, even in deeper, more remote waters off California, is not a business for the fainthearted. Fishing groups have raised objections in California. So has the U.S. Department of Defense, which is concerned about offshore pilot training areas and the spinning turbines’ interference with radar installations.

Weinstein, who got her electrical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and then worked as an aeronautical engineer for several years, decided that a career as an entrepreneur in renewable energy was worth the risks.

“It’s more that you kind of feel what you want to do, and when it comes in front of you, you feel right. As long as you’re not afraid of doing something that you don’t have the manual for, then those things happen,” she explained in an interview.

While floaters are currently more expensive than wind turbines with a fixed foundation in the ocean, Musial of NREL believes they will remove a big economic barrier in the offshore wind business because wind turbines are growing larger, and a U.S. law called the Jones Act requires very large and very expensive U.S.-owned ships to install them at sea.

But floaters can be assembled in local seaports, towed out to sea for installation and even towed back to port for major repairs, if necessary, he explained, reducing labor costs.

There is a third stage in offshore energy now developing in Europe, which applies to both fixed and floating wind turbine farms. As demand for renewable energy has grown, companies have begun considering ways to reduce power line congestion by making and storing excess energy offshore. One way is by using electrolysis to split hydrogen out of seawater and storing it in underwater bladders near wind farms.

Germany has begun experiments. The Dutch government recently announced “Crosswind,” an unsubsidized offshore wind farm being built by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, an oil major, and Eneco, a local utility. It will test a variety of ways of making and storing excess offshore energy, including floating solar arrays, temporary battery storage and an electrolyzer.

A letter sent to the Dutch parliament by the minister of economic affairs titled “Offshore Wind Energy Roadmap 2030” explained that so-called green hydrogen could prevent the price of electricity generated at sea from becoming too low to support further offshore investment. That would be accomplished by making more hydrogen at sea and shipping it to shore for a variety of purposes. They include supplying hydrogen for fuel cell-equipped electric cars and for heating buildings as the Netherlands continues in its planned phaseout of fossil fuels.

Despite the renewable energy ambitions of various states, the U.S. is not ready for this yet, Musial pointed out. “But my crystal ball says that in 10 years we’ll be worrying about green hydrogen. Right now it might be a little early.”