Five Lessons That US Offshore Wind Must Learn from Europe

The nascent U.S. offshore wind industry has some big hurdles to jump, from more broadly raising support and awareness of its benefits to simply getting first steel in the water to prove it can be done, experts noted at last week’s Offshore Wind Power USA conference last week in Boston. Experts say the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe’s offshore wind development and adoption — which means more than the tongue-in-cheek simplicity offered by Doug Copeland, regional development manager with EDF Renewable Energy, who advised with “100 percent certainty” that U.S. offshore wind projects “will come on late and over budget.”

Emphasize Lifetime Costs of Energy. Anders Roed Bruhn, partner with Quartz & Co., emphasized several crucial elements that the U.S. needs to take away from Europe’s experiences. First and foremost is to immediately put a lifetime cost-of-energy on the agenda: “that’s the lever for fueling public support and making the industry competitive in the long run,” he said. That means broad participation, not individual states or manufacturers acting alone but in clusters or regions with an agenda to lower energy costs. “Don’t do that and you’ll lose public support,” he urged.

See the Big Picture. U.S. offshore wind proponents must not underestimate project complexity and especially the differences from onshore wind from creating contracts, to determining the foundation, to which vessel to use, Bruhn advised. A big part of that is giving someone (a person or group) a holistic view of the total project end-to-end and the effect of any changes in costs up and down the equation. “This is difficult,” he said, “if [you] change one thing, it’ll affect another thing, and that affects the costs of the project.”

Toby Edmonds, project director for RWE Innogy’s Gwynt-y-Mor offshore project, revealed his team reproduced the entire site, right down to cranes, out of Legos — moving the pieces around to visualize in a 3D vision how everything would work, and get everyone understanding the process together. “That should have been a bigger focus earlier,” he said.

Thierry Aalens with RWE Offshore Logistics addressed the issue of siting and sighting, “to avoid the discussions you’re having now,” about the visual impacts of offshore wind turbines. RWE is putting turbines out far enough (up to 25 km from shore) to be beyond the horizon line, accepting the trade-off of extra challenges that arise from working in deeper waters. Edmonds noted that long-term weather averages help plan out a project, but current weather won’t always cooperate, and some project activities such as cable installation are more sensitive to weather and require a longer window of operations.

Know What’s Below, Prepare for Complexity. Subsea ground conditions can be unpredictable, and costly to figure out and work around. The 160-turbine Gwynt-Y-Mor was “a very difficult site,” Edmonds said, ultimately requiring “an extremely expensive and difficult” reverse circulation drilling operation. Investigating what’s on the sea floor is a very expensive process, so “try to get the most out of it,” he urged. (Note this process is ongoing; they’re still finding the occasional ordinance at Gwynt-Y-Mor.)

Aalens offered thoughts on choosing a foundation, suggesting a preference for large turbines on jackets. “We tried gravity-base,” he said, but “we see a limited potential for it” because of the extensive seafloor prep work required and subsequent permitting challenges. Aalens also pointed to physical limitations to monopiles in those deeper waters, especially with the market favoring increasingly large turbines (“it’s almost impossible to order turbines of 5-6 MW beyond 2015”).

Lead the Way With Partners. Bruhn urged developers to adopt an open-book strategy and mindset when dealing with partners, to help smooth out the business for supply-chain partners, and increase capacity overall and decrease costs for everyone. “Spending 120 percent in December makes no sense,” he said; find ways for everyone to produce at low periods and sell at the lowest costs, and “share the upside.”

That can be a bit of a tricky path, but offshore wind developers must remain stalwart. Noting how there are many single-point failure spots in offshore development, Edmonds shared an example of one supplier that pledged a £1 million spares inventory, none of which, it turned out, included components that actually were needed.

Credit risk of suppliers is another “nightmare situation” that can end up in a standoff and cost everyone a lot of money, he added. And properly managing contracts within a project is another important task, minimizing contracts at all costs. He acknowledged this generates “some pushback from lenders,” but he emphasized the need to establish “the right number of contracts, not the fewest. You need to have, and hang onto, the right people and personnel.”

“At the end of the day, every problem is yours,” Edmonds summed up. “Don’t rely on contracts in place to pass off responsibility.”

Create The Learning Curve. U.S. developers should decide on their project’s technology portfolio and formulate their supply chain as early as possible, which will help bring everyone’s costs down and multiply that effect over the entire project, Aalens said. He underscored Europe’s need to better integrate with marine industries, echoing earlier thoughts from the New Bedford Wind Energy Center’s Matthew Morrissey.

Edmonds recalled a previous offshore wind project that took six months to put in 25 foundations; at Gwynt-Y-Mor the first 25 installations took six weeks. That “massive learning curve effect … has a dramatic impact on price,” he noted. “The real progress [is] in speed of installation. That needs to find its way into your projects.” And with the U.S. offshore wind potential well exceeding that of Europe, the learning curves could be even more magnified.

Case Study: EDPR and the Crown Estate

Sarah Pirie, head of consenting for EDPR U.K., and Dorothy Shepherd, portfolio delivery manager for The Crown Estate, offered a joint take on working together to do offshore wind in the U.K. There’s a lot of flexibility in how offshore lands are identified and handed out; the Crown Estate has jurisdiction out to 12 nautical miles, but acts essentially a landlord, allocating zones (without an auction) large enough to give developers flexibility to figure out what they can do and what might work best. That also introduces extra complexity, costs and permitting challenges, Pirie noted, as geographic and environmental features within the zone might differ greatly. For example: focusing on one end of a zone might introduce deeper water and different ground conditions, and also a different set of wildlife to deal with — in EDPR’s case it was a heavy concentration of scallops, whose harvesting using dredges is most unfriendly to submarine cables. Part of their answer has been to recruit the fisheries and ships, which helps map and monitor fishing activity in the targeted zone, she noted. These efforts are compounded if certain species protected at the European level are encountered, such as Atlantic salmon or bottlenose dolphins.

Ultimately EDPR and the Crown Estate see a path to reducing costs to 139 €/mWh by 2020. The turbine component of that is still evolving; the team is figuring out how to design and optimize project layouts to reduce wake effect.

There’s a “huge drive for local content” in the U.K., but Pirie said that won’t come at the expense of delivering acceptable project economics. “The single biggest thing” is the criticality of transitioning from a longer DC connection to a shorter AC connection, which Pirie said will have a “very significant” impact on project economics.

Lead image: USA and EU, via Shutterstock

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Jim is Contributing Editor for, covering the solar and wind beats. He previously was associate editor for Solid State Technology and Photovoltaics World, and has covered semiconductor manufacturing and related industries, renewable energy and industrial lasers since 2003. His work has earned both internal awards and an Azbee Award from the American Society of Business Press Editors. Jim has 17 years of experience in producing websites and e-Newsletters in various technology markets.

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