The Biden administration unveiled its most recent renewable energy initiatives on Thursday, this time focusing on a technology that is still in its infancy: floating offshore wind turbines. Large ocean areas are thought to be off-limits to the economic development of energy since floating turbines are projected to cost around 50% more than turbines that are directly moored to the bottom. The programme unveiled today will establish a “wind shot” with the objective of reducing costs by more than 70% over the following ten years and elevating the US to the position of industry leader.
Does it float?
Although offshore wind is thriving in Europe and China (and is about to make a delayed comeback in the US), the hardware that is now in use is constructed directly from the seafloor, necessitating sitting in shallow waters. This is advantageous for the US East Coast because there is ample room for large wind farms there, several of which are now applying for permits and planning their construction. Due to the US’s protracted delay in embracing offshore wind, the sector has been transferred to the nations that invented the technology in the majority of those projects.
Many places with significant offshore wind potential in the US are too deep to be utilised by wind turbines attached to the ocean floor, according to a recently released map illustrating that potential. Nearly the entire West Coast, Hawaii, and the Great Lakes are included in this. Floating turbines might significantly increase the development-friendly zones even along the East Coast.
Between fixed and floating turbines, the Department of Energy calculates that there is a potential for more than four terawatts of wind power. That would be sufficient to cover the US’s total yearly electricity consumption in around three months at offshore wind’s typical production levels.
The costs are the issue. Fixed onshore wind farms still need to lower their costs before they can compete with natural gas in Europe, where they have only recently begun to match the cost of coal-powered electricity. The costs for floating wind are higher than those for nuclear power when the cost penalty of 50% is added. In addition to increasing the ability to instal floating turbines, the new “wind shot” programme aims to make them cost-competitive with natural gas. If it is effective, it might establish US businesses as industry leaders in floating wind generation.
Although there may be problems with the phrase “moonshot” being overused in reference to government initiatives, the name “wind shot” is based on a previous, successful DOE programme called “SunShot.” Similar cost-reduction objectives for photovoltaic power were set for SunShot when it was launched over ten years ago; it accomplished these targets several years before the deadline. This achievement has spawned a number of similar renewable energy initiatives.
The main insight of SunShot is that the cost of the panels only accounted for a small portion of the problems with solar energy. Barriers were constructed that constrained the economic potential of solar energy, including the price of permits, the cost of support hardware like inverters, and the capacity to manage large amounts of erratic power on the grid. Similarly, although cutting the cost of the turbines wouldn’t hurt, the problems with floating wind don’t really stem from their high cost. The support hardware is the area where the work is concentrated.
This will be done for the Offshore Wind Shot by building the transmission networks that will deliver the generated power to shore and optimising the design of the floating platforms and the tethers that connect them to the ocean floor. The DOE will also endeavour to ensure that a domestic manufacturing industry’s supply chain can be established and will do its best to grow up that industry in order to achieve the target of having 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind power by 2035.
To be more specific, the DOE will fund grid and port analyses along the West Coast to figure out how to sustain an offshore wind business there, software development to assist in designing offshore farms and integrating them into the grid, and design competitions for floating platform designs. Additionally, a current research project called ATLANTIS, which stands for “Aerodynamic Turbines, Lighter and Afloat, with Nautical Technologies and Integrated Servo-control,” will concentrate on field testing some of the designs that emerged from an earlier stage in the programme. I wish this weren’t true, but it is.
The emphasis on floating offshore wind offers the potential to repurpose some of the offshore fossil fuel extraction industry and personnel, in addition to the obvious advantages of holding a leadership position in a sector that is expected to grow significantly over the next few decades. The resistance to some of the changes we’ll inevitably have to make may be lessened if there was a visible path to continued relevance.