Could the US lead the world in floating offshore wind?

The United States lags Europe and Asia on offshore wind, but still has a chance to get ahead in the new and fast-growing market for floating turbines.

(Principle Power)
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The U.S., long a bystander in the rapidly growing offshore wind market, could get a shot at global leadership after a federal announcement this month.

The Biden administration intends to lease a number of offshore areas for wind power development, including waters off California and Oregon, which could lead to the first offshore wind projects on the West Coast. This would require developers to cultivate a deep familiarity with floating offshore wind, which is still a nascent class of technology. But if U.S. developers can outrun European and Asian rivals, they could take the lead in a sector with massive global potential.

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The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last week unveiled its plans to hold a lease sale for Northern and Central California offshore wind capacity around September 2022. A lease sale in Oregon waters is slated to follow in the second quarter of 2023, as part of a Biden administration program to install 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

(U.S. BOEM)

Unlike projects planned along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, where turbines can be mounted on foundations fixed to the seabed, the deep-water California and Oregon locations will require floating wind platforms. 

This offers the U.S. a unique opportunity to take the lead on developing these platforms after having largely missed the boat with fixed-bottom offshore wind. 

At the end of last year, North America — and more specifically, the U.S. — accounted for just 0.1 percent of the more than 35 GW of offshore wind capacity installed worldwide. Around 70 percent of the world market is in Europe and the remainder in Asia-Pacific, according to figures from the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

While the fixed-bottom offshore wind market is dominated by European and Asian players, the field for floating platforms is still wide open. GWEC says global floating capacity totaled just over 73 megawatts at the end of last year. 

But 80 percent of the world’s offshore wind resource is in waters that are more than 60 meters in depth, which means turbines can only be installed there on floating foundations. And the U.S. already has emerging technology leadership in floating platforms. 

Europe has experience in fixed-bottom offshore wind, but the U.S. has a floater offshore supply chain that is considered a huge asset to developing floating wind projects,” said Erik Rijkers, director of market development and strategy at the analyst firm Quest Floating Wind Energy.

Principle Power, a California company, is expected to supply its WindFloat platforms to 14 of the 75 floating offshore wind projects being tracked by Quest. That is more than twice as many as any other platform developer. 

The semi-submersible floater design favored by Principle Power is also the most popular of the multiple floating foundation concepts currently being considered by the industry. Semi-submersibles will be used in 64 percent of upcoming floating offshore wind projects, GWEC forecasts. 

While Principle is supplying floating platforms, U.S. manufacturer General Electric is supplying turbines to sit atop them. 

GE is the only U.S. company making offshore wind turbines. But it has managed to retain the third-largest share of the market behind Vestas and Siemens Gamesa, thanks in part to its Haliade-X model, which was the most powerful turbine available when it was launched last year.

The firm, which also has a thriving unit that manufactures onshore turbines, recently unveiled a floating turbine concept it’s developing in partnership with marine consulting firm Glosten using funds from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program.

Competition is already fierce

Leadership in offshore platform and turbine technology could give U.S. companies a chance to enter export markets as the sector matures. But the U.S. faces stiff competition. 

In Europe, which boasts the world’s most mature offshore wind supply chain, France, Norway, Spain and the U.K. are all looking to develop floating technology. 

France last month became the first European country to hold an auction for rights to develop floating wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean south of Brittany, putting 250 megawatts on the block and preselecting 10 bidders. 

France seems to be neck and neck with the U.K., which is also seeking to enter the emerging floating wind market after it set a 1 GW floating wind capacity target for 2030,” states the analyst firm IHS Markit in a research note.

However, the most serious challenge to U.S. dominance of floating offshore wind could come from farther afield. 

Japan and South Korea are both moving forward with ambitious plans and are the biggest competitors for European floating wind companies,” Christoph Zipf, press and communications manager for the industry association WindEurope, said in an email. 

Japan held the world’s first floating offshore wind auction last year, for a 16.8 MW project in the country’s southwestern waters. Still, like the U.S., Japan has until recently lagged behind on offshore wind development.

In contrast, South Korea is not wasting time as it pursues its floating ambitions. In May the country announced plans for up to 6 gigawatts of floating wind capacity by 2030. The oil major Shell is leading a joint venture to develop a 1.4 GW floating wind project in the country. 

Observers believe the country can lead the world,” IHS Markit states in a note about South Korea’s development of a floating wind sector. 

If the U.S. wants to get ahead in the race for floating offshore wind leadership, it needs to move fast. 

Jason Deign reports on global trends in climatetech, energy storage and wind. He is based in Barcelona, Spain.