Full Speed Ahead

Written by on 18 July 2014 in Feature

Offshore renewables are picking up the pace

You wait for one and then two come along at once. It may seem rather hackneyed, but the old bus cliché has never been more apt.

Last November, Norwegian energy giant Statoil announced plans to construct the UK’s first – and Europe’s largest - floating wind farm.

Five turbines attached to steel cylinders are to be anchored to the seabed up to 120m below by a three-point mooring spread in a 30-megawatt venture some 30km off Peterhead.
Within six months, a second floating offshore wind project was being proposed for the Scottish coast, this time by Kincardine Offshore Windfarm Ltd – a joint project between Pilot Offshore Renewables and Atkins.

In this case, eight turbines mounted on semi-submersible floating platforms are envisaged 10 miles south of Aberdeen, the intention being to produce up to 50MW.

The floating technology – which has been embraced in Japan after the 2011 Fukishima disaster that shut down nuclear reactors – not only opens up opportunities to access much deeper waters further from shore, but also market opportunities that both business and government are keen to exploit.

“Previously, offshore wind turbines had really been marinised onshore versions with an average turbine size across Europe of around 4MW,” says Lindsay Leask, Scottish Renewables senior policy manager for offshore renewables.

“What we’re trying to do now is develop these bespoke offshore turbines that are much bigger and designed specifically for deployment in the deeper waters that we have here in Scotland and other parts of the coast in the UK.

“The UK currently has more offshore turbines deployed than anywhere else in the rest of the world so it’s clear that what we’re using at the moment works. It is just we can do it better, in more challenging locations.

“So we’re looking at things like alternative foundation design and access systems, with the aim that these innovations will not only help to drive cost reductions but also open up these deeper water sites, further from shore.”

A new generation of offshore wind turbines is in the pipeline. Samsung currently has its 7MW on test at Methil in Fife, while Siemens 6MW turbine is on test at Hunterston before being joined shortly by Mitsubishi’s 7MW machine.

“These are pre-commercial designs but the expectation is that we will see 6 and 7MW turbines deployed in Scottish projects in the not too distant future,” adds Leask. “It’s a really exciting development and it is fantastic that it is happening here in Scotland. We really are leading the world in these deeper water technologies.”

If projections issued by RenewableUK earlier this month are to be believed, offshore wind-generation capacity will more than triple between now and 2020 in terms of its contribution to the UK’s total electricity generation.

That is likely to be helped, at least in part, by the creation of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, one of seven such centres set up by the UK Government in high growth industries, which has test facilities in Glasgow and Northumberland.

The Catapult was established last year with a specific focus on offshore wind, wave and tidal energy. Working with industry and academia, the initiative is intended to speed up the delivery, commercialisation and scalability of technological advancements, including testing and demonstrating new foundation concepts as well as sensor technologies that allow maintenance of turbines based on their condition rather than at a scheduled time.

“I would highlight SPARTA (System Performance, Availability and Reliability Trend Analysis) [as] a collaborative programme between us, the Crown Estate, and wind farm owner/operators [and as breaking new ground from a technological point of view],” says chief executive, Andrew Jamieson.

“The project is establishing a database for sharing anonymised offshore wind farm performance and maintenance data.

“Owner/operator participants will be provided with robust and reliable benchmark data for the first time, helping to identify operational improvements at both company and sector-wide levels to drive down costs.”

Though the speed with which offshore wind is progressing – projections suggest offshore wind farms may overtake the proportion of electricity from onshore by 2020 – has attracted attention, there is equally a “great story” to be told in the advancements made by marine, according to Henry Jeffrey, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

Eleven years on from being established, the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney remains the only wave and tidal testing facility of its kind worldwide, its work made more challenging by the failure to enjoy the same level of knowledge transfer that offshore wind has been able to borrow from its onshore cousin.

Around a dozen full-scale devices of around a megawatt in size are now being tested with a view to manufacturing on a mass scale. “The challenge will be once you move from single devices to arrays of devices,” says Jeffrey.

“People have made investments in developing single devices to learn their lessons but once it comes to saying, ‘I’m no longer buying one device to gain experience, I want to buy 20 devices to have a commercial farm’ then you need warranties with regard to power production, you need to have guarantees, and companies to stand behind those guarantees with regard to what you’re buying.

“The biggest challenge there will be reliability, making sure that when you buy a device that it will operate day in day out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Making sure that we can go from testing devices to having devices that operate almost continuously and [that] we’re able to operate them and maintain them – we still need to have maintenance periods but we can plan for that – is the challenge going forward.

“Connected to that reliability will be the cost. We can do this, we can build these devices, we can make them work, but we also need to make them work more economically than they work at present. That will come from two things, one will be the reliability, so the more often they are working, the more power they produce, hence the more economical. And it will come from capital cost reduction that you’re actually building devices that cost less.”

Offshore renewables are expected to make the largest contribution to the UK’s commitment to providing 15 per cent of all energy – electricity, heat and transport – from renewable sources by the end of this decade. Recent announcements, such as Siemens and Associated British Ports’ £310m investment in manufacturing facilities on Humberside for offshore wind turbines and blades, serve as a “significant international vote of confidence in the UK’s offshore renewable energy industry and ambitions,” says Jamieson.

“But costs remain high versus return on investment, and that is preventing many companies from investing more in offshore projects,” he adds. “To ensure we capitalise on this economic opportunity, we need greater collaboration to develop a collective view on what the key technology challenges are, and where we should be focusing our combined efforts on developing innovative solutions to drive cost reductions.

“It is crucial that industry, academia and the public sector are all pulling in the same direction if the UK is to realise its potential from offshore wind, wave and tide. We need to focus on standardisation, collaboration, innovation and scale on manufacturing and delivery in order to drive down costs and make the industry more competitive.”

Continued strong support from government and the acceleration of offshore wind farm consents is required to encourage further investment from industry in areas such as UK-based manufacturing facilities, says Jamieson. “There is still a considerable amount of work to be done, but meeting the Government and industry target of a competitive £100 per megawatt hour is realistic and achievable.”

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