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Offshore Wind Grows in Europe

Offshore windmills
Thanks to technological developments and lessons learned from early installations, deep-water offshore wind farms are destined to increase in number in the united Kingdom and Europe in the coming years, according to a new report. Wikimedia Commons/ Hans Hillewaert

A new report predicts dramatic growth in offshore wind installations by 2021, as Europe and Asia capitalize on high wind speeds and the industry develops better solutions for deep water sites.

December 4, 2012—The installation of offshore wind facilities is projected to grow dramatically in the next four years, led by development in the United Kingdom and Europe and driven in part by aggressive targets to reduce carbon emissions and increase the percentage of energy generated by renewable sources, according to the report International Wind Energy Development: Offshore Report 2013, produced by Navigant’s BTM Consult, a consultancy group headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“The offshore wind sector is a very prominent, emerging sector in the wind industry,” says Aris Karcanias, a managing consultant at BTM, one of the lead authors of the report. “It offers the possibility of capitalizing on the higher wind speeds and ultimately achieving a higher capacity factor—unabated by the laws of the land.

“The North and Baltic Seas offer high wind speeds and a more stable wind resource [offshore], resulting in higher capacity factors and ultimately a higher energy yield compared with onshore,” Karcanias adds. “That’s one of the main motivators for going offshore.”

Karcanias admits that the benefits come with significant technical challenges, especially with respect to developing technologies that are capable of operating in extremely saline conditions and harsh weather, which can impact both installation and operations and maintenance. “Even getting the energy back to shore presents a technical challenge,” he says. “So the main motivator is the ability to generate higher capacity by operating offshore.”

About 470 MW of new offshore wind-generated capacity was installed in 2011, bringing the total international capacity to 3.9 GW. That number is projected to grow to 23.9 GW by 2016, and 77.4 GW by 2021. Europe is projected to install 63 percent of that capacity.

“When you look at the U.K., there is a limited land mass, and they have quite progressive energy and carbon targets by 2020,” Karcanias says. “The U.K. boasts one of the best offshore wind resources.” By comparison, there is a limited availability of land mass onshore and a challenge in securing consent for onshore wind farms, he says. “It’s almost a natural consequence for the go offshore.”

Conversely, abundant undeveloped land coupled with deep waters at the shoreline have hampered development of offshore wind in the United States. “The main challenges in the U.S. include the deep waters and the lack of dedicated long-term incentives needed for both project planning and investors,” Karcanias says. “The [question] is, are the incentive schemes really there? Are they strong enough to support the offshore wind industry? And the answer is no.”

Because the industry is young and immature, Karcanias says there have been dramatic changes since BTM’s last report on offshore wind in 2010. The industry is examining alternative drive-train technologies for offshore turbine designs, eliminating the complex gear boxes in favor of a direct-drive system. Because offshore installations are difficult to access, simplified designs will make operations and maintenance simpler and ultimately more cost effective.

The industry is also developing floating installations, which can be built on land and floated into place, to mitigate the challenges of working in deep waters and farther offshore. Japan is seen as an early innovator in the development of floating offshore wind installations, but stability issues will likely be difficult to solve and the technology could take decades to perfect.

But the emerging offshore industry has already quickly sought to benefit from the valuable lessons learned from operating and maintaining offshore systems in harsh saline environments from the earlier rounds of offshore installations. The later deep-water installations will reap the rewards as offshore turbines are placed further at sea.

“From an engineering standpoint, most of the technologies exist,” Karcanias says. “Whether or not the wind industry in the first rounds of offshore adapted the technology adequately is questionable and only time will tell. However, the truth is that they have learned lessons from the earlier rounds, which were nearer to shore. And they have adapted to the saline environments ... because obviously they are undergoing completely different environmental impacts than an onshore system.”

Another challenge for the offshore wind development is found in the supply chain. The BTM report states that 5 GW of capacity is currently under construction, with 100 GW of projects in the planning stages.

“If you look historically at the way the wind industry has developed—even from the 2010 report to today—we are seeing vast quantities of offshore wind developing, much faster than anyone had probably expected,” Karcanias says. “And for that reason, the challenge is, can the supply chain keep up in terms of critical enabling components such as the extra large bearings, export cables, and cable installation vessels?

“Another challenge for the supply chain is the trend toward the design of specialized components aimed at optimizing next-generation offshore turbines; [this] creates a technical barrier to standardization and modularization and hinders the cost-reduction benefits inherent in mass production,” Karcanias says.

The comprehensive report includes a complete analysis of the policy spectrum, the investment climate, and installations from a historical as well as a forecast perspective, Karcanias says.

“It is an important, growing sector, from every avenue, especially given the decline seen in the onshore industry in Europe,” Karcanias says.



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