West Coast Floating Wind Turbine Plan Gains Momentum, Funding

6/4/14Follow @bromano

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be placed many miles offshore, they would be barely visible from land. That greatly reduces the potential for the kind of fierce opposition from coastal residents that held up the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm, the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, for more than a decade. The opponents fear losing their pristine views.

Deep water locations, with less aquatic and avian life than shallower coastal waters, also bring fewer environmental concerns. “You have to go looking for problems,” said Andrea Copping, an oceanographer at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who is working with WindFloat Pacific on environmental studies and permitting. “They’re not obvious.”

In addition, the floating wind turbines can be assembled at a deep water port and towed out to sea by standard tugboats. In contrast, fixed-foundation offshore turbines require expensive specialty vessels and crews to install on site. That is risky work that requires extended windows of fair weather. And the entire floating unit can be towed back in for major repairs, if needed, rather than ferrying crews and parts out to sea. These advantages will translate into cost reductions, proponents say, which are essential to offshore wind’s competitiveness.

Principle Power’s design is based on established technology used in the offshore oil and gas industry. Each WindFloat floating platform has three tall vertical columns. The columns are connected by gangways and other supports, forming a triangle, and are moored to the ocean floor with conventional chains and cables. Attached to the bottom of each column is a heave plate, a heavy metal sheet that dampens motion and helps maintain stability in ocean waves. A standard wind turbine tower and three-bladed turbine is mounted on one of the columns. electricity is sent to shore by sea-bottom cables.

Principle Power bought the intellectual property covering the WindFloat design in 2009 from Marine Innovation and Technology, in Berkeley, CA, and recruited co-inventor Dominique Roddier as its chief technology officer.

To test the technology, Principle Power and utility Energias de Portugal put a 2-megawatt wind turbine to sea on a WindFloat platform off Aguçadoura, Portugal in 2011. It has operated there for the last two and a half years, reliably producing power in the same manner as if it were based on land. The ocean conditions there are similar to those off of Coos Bay, said Principle Power vice president Kevin Banister, with frequent storms, big waves, and, of course, plenty of wind. “In Portugal, this thing has survived some very significant storm events, 50-foot waves… no problem,” he said. “The most important thing is that we’ve validated the concepts really thoroughly.”

The success in Portugal is what convinced Deepwater wind to join the WindFloat Pacific effort, Grybowski said.

Engineers are focused now on scaling up the WindFloat to accommodate the larger-capacity wind turbines, and to incorporate lessons learned from Portugal on design, fabrication, and other “incremental things” that will increase efficiency and reduce the cost of the structure, Banister said.

Meanwhile, the developers must get permits from federal and state fish and wildlife and ocean regulators, among others, and find a buyer for the power WindFloat Pacific would produce. WindFloat Pacific’s backers aren’t ready to talk about the price of power from their project, having begun discussions with potential utility customers only recently. But the cost of power is likely to be significantly higher than a competitive market rate.

In addition to the utilities, another potential customer is Jordan Cove Energy, which is seeking permission to build a power-hungry liquefied natural gas plant and terminal near where WindFloat Pacific’s transmission cable would make landfall.

A power purchase agreement of some kind will be necessary to obtain financing to build the project, which The Seattle Times reported will cost $200 million, a number Grybowski said is in “a general range.”

Banister noted that this is a demonstration project, not a utility-scale commercial project that would compete with established technologies.

“What it’s intended to do is show the quality of the resource, show the viability of the technology, and educate the utilities, through their participation, about what all of this might mean as they seek to serve their customers’ loads,” he said.

Once the technology is proven, the biggest question mark is whether floating wind can become cost competitive with other forms of power.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest Annual Energy Outlook does the best job of comparing various energy generating technologies side-by-side, providing a so-called levelized cost of electricity that accounts for factors including fuel cost, utilization rates, and operations and maintenance expenses.

In its latest analysis, which estimates costs in 2012 dollars for new power plants that would begin service in 2019, offshore wind comes in at $204.10 per megawatt hour of electricity, falling to $170.30 in 2040. Compare that to land-based wind at $80.30 per megawatt hour in 2019, which is cheaper than hydroelectric, solar, biomass, nuclear and even some natural gas plants. The costs specifically for floating offshore wind are harder to estimate, since the technology is so new.

But offshore wind proponents note, rightly, that wind and solar prices have reached their current, competitive cost levels after decades of technology advancement, industry growth (and attendant economies of scale), and reduced risk—and therefore financing costs. Now, they hope offshore wind will take a quicker journey down the cost curve than the EIA projects.

“We’re all looking forward to seeing how the technology works, because it’s not totally unlike where wind and solar were 10 or 20 years ago,” said Rachel Shimshak, executive director of Renewable Northwest, a Portland-based advocacy group. “You always hope for new technologies that are coming around the corner so that there’s something new to add to the renewable energy mix.”

In the National Offshore Wind Strategy, the DOE estimates that the power price of offshore wind will drop to $70 per megawatt hour by 2030, though that may be optimistic.

For offshore wind in the Northwest to succeed, it must not only reduce costs but also … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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