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Drones and floating turbines — wind energy's creative year

For the energy sector, the last 12 months might best be remembered as the year the Energy Bill delivered the long-awaited Electricity Market Reform that was passed by Parliament, or the year that the cost of living debate reached its loudest point.  While this has been a whirlwind year with various facets of energy policy being pinched, preened, polished and indeed punched, for me, 2013 is the year that wind power technology stormed ahead.

The renewables sector is on track to provide around 70,000 jobs up and down the country in the next 10 years, offshore and onshore wind is credited with creating almost £70,000 for the British economy for every megawatt of capacity installed, and the UK offshore wind industry has been crowned as the most attractive destination for investors according to Ernst and Young. Last month, we witnessed a record-breaking amount of clean electricity being generated in a day with wind power contributing more than 6 gigawatts (over 6,000 megawatts) to the National Grid for the first time – that’s enough to power more than 3.4 million British homes.

These are all important milestones to celebrate, but on reflection, what made me the most proud was the unprecedented level of collaboration between industry innovators, developers, supply chain companies and wind power supporters which has led to groundbreaking technological advances in the sector. These pioneers are driving down the cost of wind energy as well as improving safety levels, attracting skilled workers and re-establishing the UK as the epicenter of industrial prowess that it was once renowned for.

One of the most exciting and high profile innovations in wind this year has been Statoil’s advancements in floating turbine technology. After more than four years of testing a full scale turbine off the western coast of Norway, the concept is technologically proven. The Hywind Scotland Pilot Park project, at a site in Buchan Deep, approximately 30km off the coast of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, aims to demonstrate technical and commercial feasibility for future offshore floating wind projects.

With a large part of the world’s offshore wind resources located in deep waters, Senior Vice President for Renewable Energy in Statoil, Siri Espedal Kindem said; “Floating wind has advantages in terms of fabrication, installation and environment. Floating wind will be cost-competitive in the future as technology matures. Floating wind turbines can be standardised for each project or region, allowing for mass production, whereas the substructures of fixed offshore wind turbines have to be adapted to each individual position within the offshore windfarm.” Statoil also point out that as the assembly of floating wind turbines can be done onshore or inshore and then be towed to the final location, smaller vessels can be utilised and weather delays are less of an issue, thus reducing construction and maintenance costs.


Sataoil’s Hywind floating wind turbine

It isn’t just these large scale engineering feats that are giving the wind industry a name for forward thinking.  Financial and risk management innovations, such as the insurance products offered by renewable services provider GCube throughout project phases, and DONG Energy’s ‘High Five’ approach to improving communications between offshore services to lower costs, are crucial to allow the sector to achieve its full potential. The National Renewables Energy Centre (Narec) has also received investment from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to develop a Renewable Energy Technology Accelerator (RETA) programme to collaborate with industry; encouraging and supporting companies in North East England to develop new products, such as inter array cable trenchers, across the supply chain for the offshore renewable energy market.

”Floating wind turbines can be standardised for each project or region, allowing for mass production, whereas the substructures of fixed offshore wind turbines have to be adapted to each individual position within the offshore windfarm

Siri Espedal Kindem,  Senior Vice President for Renewable Energy, Statoil

Supply chain companies up and down the country have also been making state-of-the-art developments for the industry. It hasn’t just been Amazon making headlines this year with its delivery drones, Livingston based aerial inspection and surveying company Cyberhawk has been working closely with developers to assist in the growth of offshore wind industry. They demonstrated their remotely operated aerial cameras at the Greater Gabbard Offshore Wind Farm opening in August this year, highlighting that drones are reducing the need for people to be placed in potentially dangerous locations. Additionally, using advanced photogrammetric techniques, drones can generate an accurate digital elevation model of wind farm sites allowing developers to design access roads, turbine locations and laydown areas. This data in turn also helps speed up environmental impact assessments.

This year subsea and offshore grouting specialist FoundOcean have also taken significant steps towards industrialising the onshore grouting process and offshore connections for turbines. Explaining the importance of these developments, Damien Murphy, Engineering Director for FoundOcean says this represents a radical step for the renewables sector helping contribute to a significant reduction in the time it take to grout and therefore lay a foundation.

The wind sector is one that is often cited as being in its infancy; however, looking back over the successes we have achieved this year, the wind sector is perhaps better described as an eager and fresh faced 20 some-thing, looking to embark on a long and successful career.

This is just a snap shot of some of the fascinating innovations being made by the wind industry. These advances continue to make wind one of the most attractive ways to generate clean energy and reduce our dependency on costly imported fossil fuels and protect UK consumers. 

Readers' comments (9)

  • "Statoil’s advancements in floating turbine technology." aren't "exciting" at all, they're quite depressing in their lack of imagination. Smart designs would be stable with a shallow draft AND harvest wave power at the same time.

    ”Floating wind turbines can be standardised, allowing for mass production".

    Yes, exactly, and the production volume would be higher still, if they're NOT restricted to deep waters. Their installation (without any heavy lift barges) would be much cheaper and they'd be towed back to port for any major refit.

    But, and it's a BIG BUT, none of this technology is truly fit for purpose without its own integral energy storage. Unless and until the industry comes to accept responsibility for the waste inherent in variable electricity supply, they don't deserve to gain a lead in this business. Subsidy and state funding should only be given to the innovation that really works. The inadequate equipment currently being deployed and proposed will inevitably entail an unnecessary and hugely expensive (total installed) over-capacity. That's dumb.

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  • Can you explain why onshore wind is so much more expensive in the UK than in the US and Brazil (to pick a couple of countries)?

    Onshore wind in the US has been selling for $40/MWh for the last 2-3 years, about $50 with the subsidy added back in.

    Is it that the wind blows fewer hours in the UK, that the turbines installed are not appropriate for local wind conditions, or something else?

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  • There are also VAT floating windmills which rotate as a whole, no bearing. Theoretical infinite hull length, low drag, horizontal assembled, low cost and easy to maintain.
    Cheap energy, where are these??

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  • Hi Bob,

    I'm not sure whose figures to trust, but we can get a good idea of the reasons by comparing the different support regimes.

    The US has the PTC, which is effectively a monetary 'reward' from the state to the company. That does not affect the market price, or add a levy onto bills - quite the opposite, I'd have thought?

    In the UK system retail companies must buy some of their electricity from renewable sources. Electricity suppliers purchase Renewable Obligation Certificates from wind generators, to show where their supply came from. If they don't buy enough of them they pay a penalty!

    This acts as a price support mechanism and the cost goes on our bills. ROCs awarded to a generator are no cost to the government. The merit order reinforces this regime, and when wind turbines are curtailed the owners are paid compensation. So, it seems to me, there isn't any market pressure to bring wind prices down, is there?

    On top of that, the US has millions of acres of federal land and lower land values, compared to the UK. Landowners here receive a fat income from inflation-linked windfarm leases. Nice little earner, risk-free and zero cash invested.

    Merry Christmas,


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  • Review smacked more of propoganda than an objective reflection.

    "Benficiaries of massive, state subsidies promote their value to the state.

    In other news Turkeys this year once again voted against Christmas."

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  • 70,000 green jobs in 10 years - that's hardly efficient is it?

    Dr Benjamin Zycher has the ultimate high-efficiency way of creating green jobs. Get your money into spoons:

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  • Why are Lucien Gambarota's projects not gaining momemtum. They have a huge potential as highlighted in their website
    Bulk buying will result in lowered cost per unit, thereby the domestic world can stand benefitted.

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  • To return to the engineering: The economies of mass production will never be fully realised, if we allow a faith in the 'efficiency' of HAWTs to blind us to the fact that, given the same investment, VAWTs would be quite good enough.

    No doubt, offshore is the future, but a tall tower, a heavy nacelle and 100m long blades can't possibly be the right design parameters for floating turbines.

    As well as C of G, size and materials are critical cost factors. Big composite blades are not a good design choice - period. They can't be mass produced, HAWT blades are highly stressed by load reversals and the bigger they get the more difficult the engineering challenge. They can't be recycled either.

    Small, comparatively speaking (and very robust), is beautiful. An aerofoil cross-section at the practical limits of aluminium extrusion design would be the natural choice - cheap to produce in quantity and 100% recyclable. You don't have that choice on a HAWT.

    The facility to feather the blades is seen as a major plus point for HAWTs. No, it's not. That just means, when there's a lot of power available, you turn down that potential harvest! btw: Our feathered friends can see VAWTs and don't fly into them, or so I understand. Win/win/win.

    Don't go for adjustable VAWT aerofoils - KISS. The drive-train should be used to optimise the turbine speed. i.e. drive a variable displacement water pump, NOT a generator. That way, it's a simple matter to harvest the energy in very low wind and force ten gales, thus raising capacity factors.

    IMHO, the wind industry is stuck in the last century.

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  • Well I have to agree, 2013 has certainly been yet another creative year for the wind energy industry…..creative accountancy !!

    They still claim high numbers of jobs (70,000 this time), BUT only after another 10yrs of eye watering subsidies.

    They claim “record-breaking amount of clean electricity” of 6 GW.
    BUT only occasionally, the average from 5,250 turbines is only is 4.5GW, & is 3x the true cost of nuclear.

    ( “attracting skilled workers” )
    Yes they do attract skilled workers…but sadly MOST of these are jobs abroad,

    ( “and re-establishing the UK as the epicenter of industrial prowess that it was once renowned for” )
    NO, the wind industry SELLS to the UK. But we ARE the epicenter of subsidy farmers.

    (“The wind sector is one that is often cited as being in its infancy”)
    The first electricity-generating wind turbine was installed in Scotland July 1887
    The first automatically operated wind turbine, was built in Cleveland also in 1887
    A forerunner of modern horizontal-axis wind generators was in service at Yalta, USSR in 1931, its capacity factor was 32% ….slightly better than today’s units !!
    The first megawatt-capacity wind turbine in Vermont USA, in 1941.
    SO, 126 yrs & still - unreliable, ineffective, spasmodic, …is that really how you want your power supply ??

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