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Taking wind energy to the sea

The EUROGIA+ Windfarmvessel project will help offshore wind energy to take the step from a costly idea relying on public funding to a market driven and competitive energy solution. Introducing the next generation of offshore wind turbines.

10 July 2012

The EUROGIA+ Windfarmvessel project will help offshore wind energy to take the step from a costly idea relying on public funding to a market driven and competitive energy solution. Introducing the next generation of offshore wind turbines.

Government backed initiatives in offshore wind energy are in vogue all over Europe. In the UK only, 33 GigaWatts of offshore wind energy production capacity are planned to be developed before 2020, more or less 6600 windmill units. For comparison, at the end of 2010, the total power production on and offshore in Germany, the leading European country in terms of installed wind capacity, was 25.8GW.

For the players in the energy sector the potential market is colossal. The problem now for the offshore wind industry is its ability to attract private, market- minded, investors in an industry largely dependent on external financing. The solution, as for all emerging business fields, lies in achieving cost-efficiency and quick return on investment.

The Rules of the market

Building wind power plants offshore has been so far a pricey business and public leverage and political support have had until now little effect on dubious investors. Thanks to a technological process developed within the recently completed EUROGIA+ Windfarmvessel research project, expenditures could be consequently reduced. ‘Originally, before the project, the costs of installing an offshore wind turbine could reach 3 times the costs of the same operation on land’ says Marc Cahay, responsible for the offshore R&D Department at French-based company Technip and leader of the project.

And complying with the time schedule of public programmes on wind energy development is also a hardly achievable objective. What the plans developed by governmental bodies forget to take into consideration is the fact that offshore building is only possible during a short period of time in the year, when the sea allows. ‘For climatic reasons, offshore construction is simply impossible four months a year’ says Cahay, ‘we need a specific tide, from 1.5 to 3 meters high, to be able to work.’

This problematic is at the backbone of Windfarmvessel. The basic concept of the project is to install the wind turbine in the sea only after having assembled it on land. ‘This method ensures the best conditions for the assembling of a wind turbine structure, the current method, building a wind turbine from scratch at sea, does not only pose safety and technical challenges but impacts schedule resulting in a lengthy costly process,’ indicates Cahay.

This solution however opened another challenge: with the wind platforms being built on land, hundreds of kilometres away from their final location, the question of transportation became paramount. The team of European engineers behind Windfarmvessel came up with an original idea: carrying windmills on sea with specifically designed catamarans. The direct result of it is no less than a tenfold reduction in cost.

From Europe to the world

The technology, as for now, is unique of its kind and appears as a technological prowess. The realisation of the project was only made possible thanks to a tight cooperation between several types of players. Technip, a Euronext listed company, originally specialises in executing complex project at sea, mainly in the oil and gas sector, and owns a fleet of 34 vessels specifically designed for this purpose. It uses now its experience for the development of marine renewable energy and defining the technical specifications of the catamaran was one of its main inputs in the project.

Acciona, a world leader in renewable energy coming from Spain and also a wind turbine manufacturer provided essential information to the team. ‘Turbine manufacturers are usually quite secretive, through the projects we could access to the technical specifications of the turbines we needed to develop the catamaran’ tells us an engineer having taken part in the project. Another partner brought in its expertise: Det Norske Veritas (DNV) an independent foundation established in Norway and acting in between others as a standards setter for the wind energy industry.

The tightening of the estimated available area for the building of wind turbines onshore has resulted in a push for the development of offshore wind-farms. Moreover, there is another reason for the development of the sector: onshore turbines have reached at 3 MegaWatts their maximum range of energy production capacity, limited by the size of the structures that can be transported by truck. A study by DNV indicates that the size of offshore turbines unbound by such limitations may allow them to reach a capacity of 10 MegaWatts by 2020.

‘The market is very dynamic in Europe’, says Stéphane His ‘however it stays localised on the continent, we hope to export our know-how worldwide and play a role to set up Europe as a leader in this technological field’. The trend is up: a recent report by Bloomberg states that Chinese offshore wind capacity may reach 22.8 GigaWatts before 10 years.