The race to deploy “oversized” wind turbines is on

A Haliade-X wind turbine pictured in the Netherlands March 2, 2022. The Haliade-X is part of a new generation of huge wind turbines that will be installed in the coming years.

Peter Boer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In the not-too-distant future, the waters 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard will be home to a potentially crucial part of America’s energy future: the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind 1, a project that has been described as “the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the country”. .”

Construction of Vineyard Wind 1 began last year and the facility will use 13 MW versions of GE Renewable Energy’s Haliade-X turbines. With a height of up to 260 meters (853 feet), a rotor diameter of 220 meters and blades of 107 meters, the Haliade-X is part of a new generation of wind turbines that will be installed in the years to come.

In addition to GE, other companies are getting into the big turbine act. In August 2021, China’s MingYang Smart Energy released details of a 264-meter-tall design that will use 118-meter blades.

Elsewhere, Danish company Vestas is working on a 15 megawatt turbine which will have a rotor diameter of 236 meters and blades of 115.5 meters while Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy is developing a turbine which incorporates 108 meter blades and a diameter of 222 meter rotor.

The reasons for these size increases are clear. As for height, the U.S. Department of Energy says turbine towers “are getting taller to capture more energy because winds generally increase as elevation increases.”

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Larger rotor diameters aren’t just for show either, with the DOE noting that they “allow wind turbines to sweep more area, capture more wind, and produce more electricity.”

It’s kind of the same with the blades. The DOE says longer blades can “capture more of the available wind than shorter blades, even in relatively less windy areas.”

The arrival of huge turbines on the market is a good thing, but their sheer scale can pose a number of mid- to long-term challenges for the industry, creating pinch points that could cause headaches.

In order

Take facilities. In February, research from Rystad Energy looked at some of the possible problems with vessels used to install offshore wind turbines at sea.

Not counting China, he said wind turbines had seen what he called “a growth spurt in recent years, going from an average of 3 megawatts (MW) in 2010 to 6.5 MW today.” .

This change, he explained, was likely to be long-lasting. “Wind turbines above 8 MW only accounted for 3% of global installations between 2010 and 2021, but this percentage is expected to reach 53% by 2030.”

The above data is for offshore wind turbines only. According to the energy research and business intelligence firm, demand for vessels capable of installing larger offshore turbines is expected to outstrip supply by 2024.

Operators, he said, “will have to invest in new vessels or retrofit existing ones to install the oversized turbines that are expected to become the norm by the end of the decade, otherwise the pace of offshore wind installations could slow down.” .

“Where wind turbines were smaller, installation could be provided by the first generation fleet of offshore wind vessels or converted jackups from the oil and gas industry,” said Martin Lysne, principal platform analyst. forms and vessels at Rystad Energy, in a statement. weather.

As operators continue to favor larger turbines, Lysne said a “new generation of purpose-built vessels” will be needed to meet demand.

These specialty ships don’t come cheap. US-based Dominion Energy, for example, is leading a consortium building the 472-foot Charybdis, which will cost around $500 million and will be able to install current and next-generation turbines of 12 MW or more. More ships like the Charybdis will be needed in the future as turbines develop.

“Of the current fleet of purpose-built vessels, only a handful of units can install 10MW+ turbines, and none are currently able to install 14MW+ turbines,” according to Rystad’s analysis. Energy. “That will change around 2025 as new builds begin to be delivered and existing vessels benefit from crane upgrades.”

Ports

Ships that transport and install turbines will be important in the years to come, but the ports where they dock are another area where investment and upgrades are likely to be needed to meet the growth of wind power.

In a comment emailed to CNBC, Rystad Energy’s Lysne described port infrastructure as “very important” from a vessel perspective.

Installation vessels moored in Ostend, Belgium. Industry bodies in the wind energy sector are calling for significant investments in port infrastructure to accommodate the rapid expansion of wind farms.

Philippe Clément/Arterra | Universal Image Group | Getty Images

In the future, it would seem that a lot of money will be needed. Last May, a report by industry body WindEurope said European ports would need to invest 6.5 billion euros (about $7.07 billion) by 2030 to “support the expansion of wind offshore”.

The report addresses the new reality of larger turbines and the effect this could have on ports and infrastructure. “Upgraded or completely new facilities are needed to accommodate larger turbines and a larger market,” he said.

Ports, WindEurope said, would also need to “extend their territory, reinforce quays, improve their ports on the high seas and carry out other civil works”.

More recently, a report by the Global Wind Energy Council also reinforced the importance of ports.

“As offshore wind projects expand and commercial-scale floating wind projects proliferate, port upgrades will be critical to the future success of the industry,” he said.

The Brussels-based organization said the size of turbines had “greatly increased” over the past decade, noting that 15MW turbines were available on the market.

“Experts now predict that 17 MW turbines will be commonplace by 2035,” he said, adding that projects centered on floating offshore wind were being developed “at enormous volumes”.

These “floating projects” required “extensive dockside storage and assembly, requiring more spacious facilities, land transport links in port areas and deeper water ports”.

“Multiple governments have identified port upgrades as critical to advancing offshore wind, from Taiwan to New York State.”

As wind turbines grow, the vessels used to transport their components will also need to adapt.

Andrew Matthews – Pa Pictures | Pa pictures | Getty Images

As for ports, Rystad Energy’s Lysne told CNBC that the United States – whose current offshore wind market is small – “would need more work because they don’t have the same infrastructure in place as Europe. “.

Changes on this front seem to be coming. In early March, BP and Equinor – two companies better known as oil and gas producers – signed an agreement to convert the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal into an offshore wind port.

In an announcement, Equinor said the port would become “a state-of-the-art midstream facility for Equinor and bp’s Empire Wind and Beacon Wind projects.” The site, he claimed, would be “a prime destination for future offshore wind projects in the region”. The investment in infrastructure modernization is expected to be between $200 and $250 million.

The road ahead

All of the above feeds into the importance of infrastructure and logistics. Shashi Barla, global head of supply chain and wind technology at Wood Mackenzie, told CNBC that while the companies had the technology capabilities, the logistical challenges were proving “very difficult.”

“It’s not that this is anything new…we’ve been talking about logistical challenges since day one in the industry,” Barla said. “It’s that…we’re kind of approaching now, today, the tipping point.”

Around the world, major economies are announcing plans to increase wind power capacity in a bid to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

As wind turbine components get bigger, the logistical challenges facing the industry are also expected to increase. This image, from August 2021, shows a 69 meter long rotor blade transported to Germany.

Endrik balls | Istock Editorial | Getty Images

Although these goals are ambitious, it is clear that they face a number of obstacles. Turbine size issues notwithstanding, it will take a gargantuan effort to bring all of these facilities online. There is work to do.

“Increasingly, the lack of enabling infrastructure is seen as a major limiting factor to the growth of the wind industry,” notes the GWEC report.

“In many countries,” he added, “lack of infrastructure, such as distribution and transmission networks, logistics highways and ports, is holding back wind power expansion and stifling the innovation needed to transform the energy system”.

Along with these issues, the interaction of wind turbines with wildlife is likely to be another major area of ​​debate and discussion in the future.

Just last week, the US Department of Justice announced that a company called ESI Energy Inc had “pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the MBTA,” or Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

As the 21st century progresses, wind energy is set to experience massive expansion, but the road ahead seems far from easy. With the UN Secretary General recently warning that the planet is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe”, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

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