Offshore wind energy turns foes into friends


An onshore wind farm. IAC file photo

Potent demand for offshore wind power has turned old industry enemies into allies as energy majors associated with fossil fuels team up with utilities, the chief executive of global wind power group Iberdrola said in an interview for the Reuters Global Energy Transition conference.

Planting turbines twice the height of the Statue of Liberty off the world’s windiest coastlines is integral to a global drive to wean economies off fossil fuels and slow potentially catastrophic climate change.

But the scale of such projects, the technical expertise required and lead times of many years mean few companies are capable of developing them, Ignacio Galan said.

“The number of players is very limited. To have already the resources, the talent needed, it takes time,” he said in the conference.

Oil majors with deep pockets are racing to apply engineering experience acquired on rigs at sea and in other challenging environments to an offshore wind rollout in which governments excluding China target a seven-fold increase in capacity to 170 gigawatts by 2030.

Among other joint ventures, Iberdrola has teamed up with France’s Total to develop the Thor wind farm 20 kilometres from the coast of Denmark. Denmark was the pioneer in wind farms when it built the first small offshore wind farm Vindeby in1991 with 11 small 450-kilowatt (kW) turbines in the shallow waters around Lolland — the country’s fourth-largest island. The electricity industry considered the development to be too small at that time.

“Those who have been our enemies in the past are now our allies,” Galan said, saying oil companies had criticised his approach in the past.

“Now we are with them already bidding for certain projects, making projects together,” he said.

Even when they are not working jointly, Galan said he was glad other companies were stepping in, as it would take a combined effort to meet global targets for emissions cuts.

“There is room for everybody. Welcome competition,” he said.

Technical Challenges

According to an article published in the New Scientist on October 20, 1990, special winches were used for construction of Vindeby as large cranes could not be used at sea. A system to control the turbines from land had to be set up using optical fibre cable incorporated into the seabed power cable taking energy from the turbines to the shore.

New turbines were prepared with three 16 m blades made from polyester reinforced with glass fibre, mounted on a 35 m tubular steel tower. The concrete foundations were built in a dry dock carved out of the shoreline of the island, which was then flooded to float the finished foundations to sea using a large catamaran, where they were lowered onto prepared bases, filled with gravel and surrounded by large boulders. 

Offshore wind was born mainly due to the lack of space for the development of large onshore wind projects in the densely populated areas of Western Europe. The European countries led the offshore wind industry as they were the first to envision oceans as a clean energy resource and were aided by a facilitating policy environment that saw the need for clean energy much before others. 

Emphasising the technical challenges of offshore wind, Galan said it was more challenging than say solar photovoltaic plants, made up of panels, whose assembly he compared to using a Meccano construction set.

By contrast, hundreds of engineers are working on offshore wind projects at an Iberdrola centre in London, he said, and the company will shortly open another facility in Boston.

“That is not something you can make from one day to another,” he said. “We started in the offshore business 15 or 14 years ago—it took a lot of time prior to making the first offshore wind farm.”

He also laid out the need for international efforts to develop expertise

British and Spanish universities are among those catering to the sector, but other parts of the world are more focused on serving areas such as data analytics.

“In the United States it is really difficult to recruit traditional electrical engineers,” Galan said.

“I recognise it is more exciting to work with these extremely attractive new devices instead of the bloody old-fashioned networks, transformers, turbines, I understand.”

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