Planning for the hardware of tomorrow: What do today's technological trends mean for the roll out of floating wind in the years to come?
Ben is a Principal Engineer with over 15 years’ experience in the offshore renewables sector. He is currently Floating Wind Business Manager in the UK & Ireland region, connecting up customers with bespoke solutions to their challenges using expertise from across the region in all of the major components of a floating wind system, as well as the wider company.
Many reading this will surely be aware of the dazzling predictions for floating wind capacity in the coming years. In fact, DNV’s own Energy Transition Outlook (2021) predicts that 264 GW will be installed globally by 2050. Since last year’s RenewableUK Floating Wind conference, we have started to see those projections take shape with at least 17 GW of floating wind now allocated seabed off the UK coast in the ScotWind leasing round. Another 4 GW is expected to be allocated in the Celtic Sea round. The UK government is hopeful that at least 5 GW of this project pipeline will be installed and operational by 2030. That means hundreds of full-size floating wind systems built, deployed, floating, and spinning before the decade is out; an epic challenge.
This dramatically increased production volume will mean competition in the supply chain across key markets, including Scotland. Furthermore, this will be at a time when the oil and gas sector (which shares much of the supply chain) looks set for a resurgence due to energy security concerns across the West.
One particular pinch point is likely to be sourcing the steel and fabricating platforms at scale in Europe. If significant investment in the supply chain is not made, a large number of the platforms to serve this market will need to come from Asia. And even then, fabrication will need to be spread over many different yards or take place over many years. Of course, alongside materials and facilities, the key component of the floating wind supply chain will be the human resource with the right knowledge, skills, and experience to get the job done efficiently and safely.
At the same time, the technology is rapidly evolving on all fronts. And this is crucial to drive down the cost of energy by around 80% which is needed to make floating competitive with fixed offshore. But what does this mean for the supply chain that must commit to plans long in advance of capacity being needed? The significant and ever-growing diversity of platform types is not the only issue here. Alternative platform materials such as concrete, mooring types such as synthetic fibre and power export options such as hydrogen all come with their own supply chain opportunities, as well as potential bottlenecks.
But the clearest trend is that offshore wind turbines, built for bottom-fixed applications, are growing in size. This is set to be one of the key drivers of cost reduction, as operations & maintenance and electrical infrastructure costs reduce with fewer, larger units. To look at the market, the trend shows no sign of slowing down, with major turbine manufacturers grabbing headlines with news of their work on turbines up to and in excess of 15 MW.
In spite of the buzz, DNV’s analysis indicates that this rapid growth may soon slow down. Using engineering-based cost modelling tools, it was found that further learning and standardization in the bottom-fixed offshore wind industry were found to lead to larger cost reductions than increasing turbine size. In fact, this has been separately advocated by Vestas, highlighting that ever increasing turbine size is a barrier to scaling up production.
Even if turbine size growth does slow down, we are still likely to see significantly larger turbines than those currently installed on floating wind platforms today. And that means practically all the other parts of the system need to be larger too. As with turbine production, this evolution in size also creates difficulties in scaling up production of floating platforms. For example, semi-submersible type platforms may need the following:
· Greater spacing between columns, meaning more space is needed in assembly and storage facilities.
· Larger draft, making them not suitable for the depth limitations in some existing ports.
· Wider columns, leading to larger vessels being required for transport.
Larger platforms and turbines will also need greater crane capacity for assembly and maintenance, although there is still a question as to how much of the maintenance can be done offshore and how much will require towing back to port. All parts of the supply chain will need to be carefully examined to see how they are impacted by these likely changes and others.
In summary, technological advancements will help the widespread commercial adoption of floating wind by reducing the cost of energy. However, these changes also unfortunately hinder standardization and the ability of the supply chain to plan capacity increases. Whatever the way forward for the technology, it is only by staying on top of emerging trends and understanding the drivers behind them that those involved in the supply chain can ensure that right capacity comes on stream at the right time. If the extraordinary industry projections prove to be correct, then now is the time to get ready for the oncoming storm.