US launches program to boost floating wind turbines

The Biden administration on Thursday announced its latest renewable energy effort, this time focused on a technology that hasn’t really arrived yet: floating offshore wind turbines. Compared with turbines installed directly on the sea floor, the cost of floating versions is estimated to be about 50 percent more, putting large ocean areas outside the limits of economic energy development. The program announced today will create a “wind shot” aimed at reducing costs by more than 70 percent over the next decade and positioning the United States as an industry leader.

will you float

While offshore winds are thriving in Europe and China (and preparing for a late take-off in the US), existing devices are being built straight from the sea floor, which requires sitting in shallow waters. This works well for the east coast of the United States, where the vast continental shelf can host massive wind farms, many of which are in the permit and planning stages. Most of these projects involve partnerships with European companies, as the United States’ long delay in adopting offshore wind has resulted in the industry ceding to countries that pioneered the field.

Based on a newly released map of offshore wind potential in the United States, many areas of good potential are too deep for ocean floor-installed wind turbines to exploit. This includes almost the entire West Coast, Hawaii, and the Great Lakes. Even along the East Coast, floating turbines can greatly expand areas open to development.

Collectively, the Department of Energy estimates that there is potential for more than four terawatts of wind power between the stationary and floating turbines. At typical production levels for offshore wind, this is enough to cover the entire annual electricity use in the United States in about three months.

The problem is the costs. Onshore stationary wind turbines have only recently become competitive with coal-fired power generation in Europe, and they still need to drop a bit before competing with natural gas. Adding the 50 percent expense penalty for floating wind raises costs above those for nuclear power. The new “wind energy” program aims to address this and simultaneously build the capacity to install floating turbines while making them cost-competitive with natural gas. If successful, it could position US companies as a leader in floating wind power.

do the shots

While there may be issues with the overuse of the word “moonshot” in relation to government programs, the term wind shot is based on a previous successful DOE program called “SunShot.” Launched about a decade ago, SunShot had similar goals of lowering the cost of photovoltaic power – and reached it several years ahead of its deadline. This success has helped produce several related renewable energy programmes.

SunShot’s main admission is that only a fraction of the solar challenges come down to the cost of the panels. The cost of allowing and supporting devices such as inverters, as well as the ability to manage a lot of intermittent power on the grid, all created barriers that limited the economic potential of solar power. Likewise, the issues with floating winds have little to do with the cost of the turbines (although lowering them wouldn’t hurt). Instead, the effort is focused on the support devices.

For offshore wind power, this will include improving the design of floating platforms and the ropes that connect them to the ocean floor and designing the transmission networks that will bring the resulting energy ashore. The Department of Energy will also ensure that the supply chain can be positioned to fuel the local manufacturing industry and do what it can to scale the industry to meet the target of 15 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035.

Specifically, the Department of Energy will fund competitions for designs of floating platform, develop programs to help design and integrate offshore farms into the grid, and fund port and network analysis along the West Coast to determine how to support the offshore wind industry there. In addition, a current research program called ATLANTIS (and I hope this is not correct, “Air Turbine, Spark Plug and Aflo, with Integrated Marine Technologies and Servo Control”) will focus on field testing some designs that came out of an earlier phase in the program.

In addition to the obvious benefits of a leadership position in an industry that is likely to grow significantly in the coming decades, the focus on floating offshore wind offers the potential to re-employ some of the offshore fossil fuel extraction industry and its workers. Having a clear path to persistence of the link may reduce resistance to some of the changes that we will inevitably have to make.

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