Floating offshore wind in US waters?

Monday, December 12, 2011

US coastal waters may soon see the development of floating offshore wind electric generating projects. Being able to install offshore wind turbines on floating platforms, as opposed to towers fixed to the seabed, may enable projects to tap into the vast deepwater ocean energy resource. This would represent a major step in history and technology, and could provide real data on the actual feasibility and costs of offshore wind in the United States.
The Cuckolds Light off Boothbay Harbor, Maine, with Seguin Island Light in the distance.

2012 may bring the deployment of North America's first floating offshore wind project. The DeepCWind Consortium and the University of Maine plan to test a floating wind turbine several miles off the Maine island of Monhegan next summer. The Monhegan project is designed as a pilot project, not a commercial effort. Nevertheless, the lessons learned off Monhegan could be used to shape a larger commercial project in 2013.

Historically, this project could be the first operating US offshore wind development. As 2011 closes, US waters still host neither operating commercial offshore wind projects, nor installed pilot projects of significant size. This is not for lack of interest. Universities and businesses are investing in offshore wind research and development, while developers eagerly pursue commercial projects in nearly all US jurisdictions. Commercial proposals range from projects fully permitted projects but unbuilt, to concepts still in the formation phase.

Technologically, a floating offshore wind project would demonstrate potential solutions to the engineering challenges posed by deep water sites. At least two floating turbines have recently been deployed around the world. The first, Statoil’s 2.3 megawatt Hywind unit, was installed off Norway in 2010. In November 2011, Portuguese utility Energias de Portugal (EDP) teamed up with Principle Power, Inc. to deploy a 2 megawatt turbine on a WindFloat platform off Portugal. The semisubmersible WindFloat design allows the unit to be towed in a horizontal position to the site, then erected without the use of a lift vessel. These test projects demonstrate some of the technologies required for deepwater offshore wind projects. A US project would represent a similar demonstration of new technology.

Floating offshore wind projects appear to have some momentum in Europe, and are poised to make a splash in US waters in the next year. Whether these efforts take hold depends on broader questions of economics and policy as much as on technology. What will 2012 bring?

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