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Floating wind tilts towards a fast-approaching horizon

OPINION | The sector is seeing the clearest signs yet that a multi-gigawatt project pipeline will soon start being built in ports around the world, writes Darius Snieckus

After a decade navigating industrial high seas and horse latitudes by future-mindedness as much as financial viability, floating wind’s ship looks at last like it is about to come in.

Though its global fleet still amounts to less 50MW installed, with units moored off Scotland, France and Japan, a gathering of nearly 1,000 of the faithful in the ancient Mediterranean trading centre of Montpellier last month were rewarded with the clearest signs yet that the multigigawatt pipeline of projects on the sector’s orderbooks will soon start being built in ports around the world.

Grzegorz Gorski, head of centralised generation at Engie claimed the developer could do for floating what Denmark’s Ørsted — on track to single-handedly switch on 15GW of fixed-foundation projects by 2025 — had done in the cause of conventional offshore wind’s build-out.

Next wave of floating wind begins to build

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And it could do so at a levelised cost of energy (LCOE) of under €120 ($134) per MWh by 2021 — half that of the four arrays being underwritten by the French government for construction off its coasts that year. To achieve this, he explained, Engie targeted installation of 1GW a year.

The French utility is far from alone in its exuberance for floating wind power. In California, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, landlord to industrial development of the continental US’ waters, has just taken draft commercial proposals to build projects in three deep-water swathes of the Pacific Ocean from a big-hitting multinational group including Spain’s Iberdrola, Portugal’s EDP, Germany’s E.ON and Norway’s Equinor.

Laurent Michel, director general at France’s Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition — consistently criticised in recent years for underambition in advancing his nation’s floating wind prospects — struck a hope-raising harmonious note by saying that a maiden commercial tender for 250-500MW could take place the year after next.

Saipem, meanwhile, one of the most powerful contractors in the offshore oil & gas arena, added gloss to floating wind’s industrialisation vision by revealing plans to serially produce its new-look Hexafloat platform in its various international construction yards.

The Italian company’s concept is among a number of next-generation designs that have recently upped sails, including three from Spanish start-ups X1 Wind, Saitec and EnerOcean, which have all made meaningful moves towards prototype trials in the past month.

The world-transforming prize of many hundreds of gigawatts one day flowing in from floating wind plants in the deeper waters that make up 80% of the planet’s oceanic wilds — memorably referred to in a landmark Carnegie Institute study as “civilisation-scale” power — is glowing ever brighter on a fast-approaching horizon.

Ten years has taught the floating wind sector many things, most notably that commercialisation is going to be anything but easy. However, if the sector can drive down its LCOE to below €50/MWh in the next decade — and the consensus is growing that it can — then floating wind’s potential is almost limitless.

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