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Will Floating Wind Farms Be A Panacea For UK's Energy Quagmire?

Will Floating Wind Farms Be A Panacea For UK's Energy Quagmire?

The United Kingdom is an energy-hungry island that is currently perched on the horns of a dilemma because its needs for electricity are outstripping its supply.

With a population of over 64 million including England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and a number of heavy industries requiring ample power, the UK is constantly challenged to balance its demands for electricity with its supplies, which come from six sources: coal (28 percent) natural gas (29 percent) nuclear (17 percent) renewables (18 percent), interconnectors (electricity linkages with France, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands - 6 percent) and other sources (1 percent).

Demand is broadly driven by economic activity, energy efficiency and weather.

While energy security probably isn't necessarily a major concern for most Britons, last week a stark reminder of the island nation's vulnerability emerged, when an unexpected outage of power plants sent wholesale electricity prices soaring and prompted the grid operator to call, for the first time ever, for industry to reduce power consumption.

The tightness of the margin between supply and demand in the UK has been caused mostly by the closure of old coal-fired power plants, mandated by EU rules on air quality. The plants are not being replaced quickly enough, especially with the current cost of electricity being too low for suppliers to have an incentive to build new sources of alternative supply.

In the absence of spare capacity on home soil, the UK's answer has been to import more natural gas from increasingly insecure places such as Russia and the Middle East, plan for more nuclear, and make room for more renewables. Related: Energy Storage Could Become The Hottest Market In Energy

The nuclear option has manifested in a recent decision to construct a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The project has been controversial not only due to its cost - at GBP 24 billion it will the most expensive nuclear plant ever built – but also because of its partners: two state-owned companies from France and China. Like all new nuclear plants, construction will take years. While a final investment decision could be made as soon as the end of year, the completion date for the two reactors isn't expected until 2025.

That leaves renewables - namely, wind. Like Japan, the United Kingdom with its rugged coastline and rolling hills is a good place to install wind power. The country currently has 6,586 wind turbines with a capacity of 13 gigawatts, making it the world's sixth largest producer of wind power . Wind capacity is divided between 8,338 megawatts of onshore and 5,048 megawatts of offshore.

Last week marked a major achievement for British offshore wind, with the announcement that Statoil, the Norwegian oil and gas giant, will be allowed to develop an offshore windfarm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland.

A first for the UK, the 30-megawatt windfarm will consist of five floating turbines that will be placed in waters over 100 meters deep around 30 kilometers off the coast of Aberdeenshire. Construction of the Hywind Scotland project is expected to start in 2016, and once complete, it will be the world's largest floating windfarm. A prototype has been generating electricity off the coast of Norway since 2010. Related: Political Climate Shifting Against The Oil And Gas Industry

Statoil's floating windfarm concept differs from other designs, in that the turbines are placed on top of a steel cylinder, containing ballast water, that is moored to the sea floor at three points. Cables connected to the turbines will send electricity to shore at Peterhead. Other windfarm models include the tension-leg platform, where a floating platform is tethered to the seabed using tension cables; and the semi-submersible, where a broad platform, also using water for ballast, is loosely anchored to the seafloor.

Floating windfarms have been gathering pace over the past few years. While Statoil claims to be the first company to come out with world's first floating wind turbine in 2009, over 40 projects are currently under development. They include the Windfloat turbine bobbing five kilometres off the Portuguese coast, which has been generating electricity since 2012, and the Fukushima Mirai wind turbine, sited 20 kilometres off the coast of Japan.

Floating windfarms have advantages over conventional offshore wind turbines because they can be installed in some of the deepest coastal areas, unrestricted by the engineering required to sink a tower into the ocean floor. The floating turbines can also be towed out to the site and set up quickly – literally in a day – versus regular wind turbines that take much longer to install and can be delayed due to weather.

The disadvantage is cost. According to the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), the current levelized cost of energy for floating wind is around GBP 140 per megawatt hour compared to GBP 110 for standard offshore wind. That makes floating wind power over double the cost of onshore wind, which is around GBP 60/MWh. Related: The Middle East Could Face A Historic Crisis By Century’s End

However, a recent report from the ETI indicates that evolving technology for floating wind could bring the cost down below GBP 100/MWh by 2020, although it also notes that reaching that target will likely involve some kind of subsidy.

Floating wind could be particularly appropriate in the United Kingdom, where the Conservative government has shown a reluctance to support onshore wind, despite the fact that onshore wind is now cheaper than any other form of electricity, including that produced by coal, oil or gas.

The Guardian quoted Breanne Gellatly, co-leader of the Carbon Trust's Offshore Wind Accelerator, as saying that floating windfarms can be placed miles offshore, thereby having no negative effects on local residents. She also noted that two thirds of the very windy North Sea is between 50 and 220 meters deep – conditions perfect for floating windfarms.

“Energy produced from floating turbines in the North Sea alone could meet the EU’s electricity consumption four times over,” Gellatly stated.

Onshore wind currently produces about 60 percent of the UK's wind power output. For offshore wind to move beyond its current 40 percent allocation, the costs will need to drop, and that will take time. But the Hywind project in Scotland is a good milestone for floating wind technology and with increasing commercialization, the costs are bound to drop, just as they have for solar and onshore wind.

By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com

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