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There is a reason the North Sea is the world’s capital for offshore wind farms. The sea is unusually shallow, particularly in the lost fertile plain of Doggerland.
 
Coupled with a relatively smooth seabed, it is perfect for fixing the bases on which thousands of wind turbines now sit in a crescent off the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. But what about off Japan, the US west coast and many other parts of the world, where the seabed quickly becomes deep?

That, Fix the Planet readers, is where floating wind farms come in. I first came across these wonders of modern engineering three years ago on a boat in Åmøy Fjord in Norway. This week is all about how they have come along, and what the future holds.
 
Three types of floating wind turbine foundation. Photo: Joshua Bauer / NREL

How do they work?

Conventional wind turbines at sea are mostly mounted on steel cylinders, up to about 40 or 50 metres deep. There are four main designs for their floating counterparts, which are being tested near northern and southern Europe and off the coast of Japan and the US. None has yet to emerge as the dominant choice. The three pictured above use a combination of ballast and cables to connect to the seabed. The fourth is a floating barge that French firm Ideol is testing off the west coast of France. “I think there is no clear winner,” says Lizet Ramirez at industry group WindEurope, of the different approaches.

What’s the prize here?

Unlocking vast expanses of water for large-scale clean energy generation. “They open up many more locations for commercial scale offshore wind,” says a spokesperson for Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, which bought French floating wind power firm EOLFI last year. For now, the technology is in very early days. There are 74 megawatts (MW) of capacity globally, 45 of which are in Europe, according to WindEurope. That compares with 22,000 MW of conventional offshore wind power capacity in Europe alone. For now, says Ramierz: “Floating is very small.”

But it isn’t just about opening up waters in countries that have yet to get started on offshore wind. Floating wind farms could also help established markets, such as that of the UK. While many of the country’s offshore wind farms today are off the east coast, floating farms could see more built off Scotland and the Celtic Sea off Wales and England’s south-west, says Rebecca Williams at RenewableUK. That geographical diversity would help ensure electricity supplies even when one area is less windy than another, she adds. Deeper waters usually mean higher, more stable wind speeds, too.

So what’s new now?

Back in 2017, the floating wind farm I visited in a fjord was the world’s first. There are now 10 projects worldwide, as companies work through research and development towards the commercial stage. Just this week, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola announced it was investing in two demo projects, one in Norway and the other in Spain. Shell says while the technology is still definitely at the demo and R&D stage, “great progress” is being made towards commercialisation. The technology holds appeal for oil and gas firms, says Williams, because it could be key to helping them meet the net-zero carbon targets they are setting, by providing green electricity supplies to oil rigs. Those companies also have a lot of similar skills – such as assembling structures in deep water and handling huge equipment in ports – that will be key for deploying floating foundations, she adds.
Three of Equinor's floating turbines at Åmøy Fjord in 2017, before being towed to Scotland. Photo: AV

What are the challenges then?

No prizes if you guessed cost! The cost of conventional offshore wind farms to be built in 2025 dropped to around £40 per megawatt-hour in the UK last year. “Floating is more than twice that price,” says Ramirez. The industry is working to reduce that cost through economies of scale. It’s also worth considering how fast the technology has already matured. The world’s first offshore wind farm was built in 1991; the first floating turbine came in 2009. Floating foundations have been adapted quickly to accommodate the ever bigger turbines being built, too. While some early ones could only take 2 MW turbines, the new ones can handle models around 10 MW, says Ramirez. Still, potential obstacles remain. Some ports will need upgrading to handle the size of the equipment. And the further out that offshore companies go, the higher the cost of transmitting the electricity back to shore.

So what does the future hold?

Much bigger floating wind farms. The world’s biggest, a 50 MW project off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, is due to be finished this year. There is also a global race on to be the leader in the technology. France, which has been a laggard in offshore wind so far, has the strongest policies in place and is likely to lead the charge on floating, says Ramirez. It could have up to 750 MW of floating wind power by 2030, due to auctions of government subsidies starting next year (here’s more on how such auctions work). The UK also recently said it is looking to allow floating wind farms to access subsidies. Longer term, turbines fixed to the seabed will continue to dominate in Europe because of the North Sea, says Ramirez. “Maybe at a global scale it could be different,” she says.
An artist's impression of a floating turbine planned by Iberdrola. Photo: Ibedrola

MORE FIXES

1.
Hydrogen is coming (again!). Using more of it could cut the greenhouse gas emissions of heavy industry and the fossil fuel sector up to 34 per cent by 2050, according to analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance. There are catches. We will need $150 billion in subsidies by 2030 to stand a chance of getting there, and decent carbon prices to encourage industries such as steel-making – which are notoriously hard to clean up – to make it worthwhile to switch to hydrogen.

2.
The UK government is looking to back efforts to charge electric cars in smarter ways – i.e. at times when energy demand is low, not at its peak. That is crucial for costs and carbon emission, as this recent report made clear. For more on charging electric cars, check out this previous Fix the Planet dispatch.

3.
Tobacco-style warning labels should be used at petrol stations, and on plane tickets and energy bills, to warn people of the climate change impact from fossil fuels, argue a team of researchers in the BMJ this week. Their opinion piece is well worth a read.
You might recall last week's dispatch was all about the coronavirus pandemic's impact on climate change. I also promised a report on the broader environment impact - that's now up on New Scientist. Please go have a read, though I'm afraid it's not all good news.

Lastly, some housekeeping. I'm off on holiday next week - maybe I'll take an exotic adventure to the living room - so there won't be an email from me next week. Fix the Planet will return the week after.

As always, please email me on the address below to suggest an idea for a future Fix the Planet newsletter. You can message me on Twitter and Facebook too. 
Adam Vaughan

Chief Reporter, New Scientist
Email me at adam.vaughan@newscientist.com to get in touch
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