Offshore Power, Floating Power

Principle floating wind power

Image courtesy of Principle Power

Offshore Power, Floating Power
| Published Sunday, April 6, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Revieweditor

Travel back in time far enough and you may recall a U.S. company called Offshore Power Systems. At the height of the OPEC oil embargoes and unrelenting energy price increases in the 1970s, the Jacksonville, Florida-based OPS had the audacious idea to construct small nuclear power generating stations at special facilities on the St. Johns River. OPS power plants would be built in local shipyards, designed to float, barge-style, and once completed they could be towed to a variety of off-shore locations anywhere in the world—bays and seas, inlets and oceans—where they would be hooked into the regional power grid.

OPS secured investor capital, set up offices in a suburban midrise tower, and went to work taking orders while its engineers worked out the construction details. For a year or two it looked promising.

But there were plenty of skeptics, as well as a predictable tsunami of opposition from environmentalists and ocean protection groups who envisioned disaster. There was also a raft of concern from otherwise environmentally neutral scientific quarters that the scheme was about as ripe for catastrophe as one could get. In the end, the Three Mile Island meltdown signaled a long hiatus from permitting and construction of new nuke power plants in the United States. Then, even worse disasters in the Soviet Union and, most recently, Japan, have seemingly driven home the point that there are few truly “safe” ways to construct and operate nuclear power facilities.

OPS went bankrupt in the early 1980s, and within a year of its closure its iconic logo was removed from that suburban office complex. With its bankruptcy came the end of the scheme of custom-built floating nuclear power stations.

In the meantime, advocates of wind power have steadily increased. Of all the eco-friendly sources of power worldwide—hydrogen fuel cell cars, solar, tide-harvesting machines—wind has held a certain advantage. Wind is free, constant and relatively easy to harvest. (See our review of Green Illusions, Thursday Review) But wind is not without its detractors, even among environmentalists, animal rights activists and developers. Wind farms are considered by many to be blight on the view, especially in those areas where high winds are the most consistent—mountains, foothills and coastal areas. The blades of most turbines produce a high-decibel noise, audible (depending on prevailing winds) up to several miles away. An entire farm can produce horrific noise. Worse, the blades have been known to kill birds—often eagles, hawks, osprey and other high-flying predators, as well as birds moving along migratory pathways. And due to wear, rust and improper maintenance, blades can detach and be hurled at lethal speeds toward homes and buildings.

Still, wind is the most easily embraced of the green energy sources, and the one with the highest potential—especially if the farms can be placed where the most reliable sources of wind can be found…the ocean.

Unlike land areas where winds can be fickle and largely unpredictable, deep ocean areas have highly reliable wind patterns coupled with muscular wind speeds. But anchoring large scale wind machines to the ocean floor can be costly in the extreme, and subject to the same permitting complexities as oil rigs.

But what if the wind machine were light enough and nimble enough to be floated out into the deep ocean, 15 to 25 miles from shore, and simply dropped into place like a giant buoy? Early prototypes of such devices have already proven successful on a small scale off the coast of Portugal, and the success of that partnership between Seattle-based Principle Power and Italy’s Vestas has inspired several companies—and countries—to begin construction of much larger versions of the floating wind farms.

One such project is planned for the coast of Oregon, where Siemens’ turbines and hardware will be placed atop floating rigs which will be positioned roughly 15 to 20 miles at sea, well out of sight of the shoreline and far enough away from the nearest coastal towns to eliminate noise as a factor. And at that distance from the shore chances of bird strikes are minimal. The development of similar large-scale projects is underway in Maine, the United Kingdom and several Asian countries (including China, according to Principle Power’s website). And partnerships between private and public firms in California and Washington are also being considered.

The advantages of the floating wind farms seem to greatly outweigh the drawbacks—one of which is the need to run a substantial and costly cable along the ocean floor to the mainland. The other problem is cost—floating windmills will cost more per unit of power produced, at least for the first few years until the construction is streamlined and the systems debugged. But as with any dramatically new technology, the manufacturing process eventually catches up with the marketplace. Which means the price tag will get lower.

Principle’s website makes a convincing argument for the advantages of floating wind systems: construction costs are greatly reduced since the floating turbines and their mounting systems can be assembled entirely on land; this means that the costs associated with towing the turbines into deep waters is minimal when compared to the expensive construction of traditional ocean-floor-attached wind turbines. The website also includes a short 2-minute video which shows a high-speed encapsulation of the construction and deployment of a floating wind system.

Some of the floating wind tower designs use steel and metal alloys, others use concrete. But their designs share the common element of buoyancy—they will be held in place by chains, polyester ropes, and anchors. This means they can be easily moved, if necessary, to other locations on the ocean where more robust wind speeds are found.

Energy analysts imagine hundreds of floating wind turbines—even thousands—could one day line an area 15 to 30 miles off the coastlines of California, Oregon and Washington. Effectively deployed, the potential for wind farms that far at sea is staggering—almost one thousand gigawatts of electricity—by some estimates enough wattage to power almost all the energy needs of North America (if such extravagant estimates are to be believed).

In the meantime, expect more conversation in the media and the business press about these floating power plants and their manufacturers. With worldwide demand for power increasing each day, and with rising awareness of greenhouse gases—and the inevitable political pressures—to reduce carbon footprint, such exotic energy schemes will become more commonplace.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Why Aren’t Those Wind Turbines Turning?; Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy, Ozzie Zehner; Thursday Review.

American Grasslands: Ploughshares Into Fuel; Earl H. Perkins; Thursday Review; February 5, 2014.