Wind power sways in a new direction — but what does it mean for workboats?

Much attention has been paid lately to the potential of offshore wind as a viable renewable energy resource. With the first U.S. wind farm completed this summer off the coast of Rhode Island and the launch last month of the Obama administration's updated offshore wind energy strategy (lauding wind as "an abundant, low carbon domestic energy resource" and setting long-term targets for wind power production), it’s clear that wind energy is gaining prominence in the U.S.

There's also widening attention from the technology side to help offshore wind tackle some of the most vexing negatives which have stymied growth in the U.S.: opposition from coastal residents bothered by the sight of turbines in the ocean, concern about the impact on marine life, high construction and energy costs, and limitations on placing fixed platforms in deep water.

Just about all the world's offshore wind farms have been constructed using the fixed approach in which turbines are installed on platforms that are secured to the sea floor by concrete or steel pillars. Installation is facilitated by purpose-built workboats that move equipment and workers to the offshore site, and platforms are usually custom-built for the specific needs of the location.

With the floating approach, turbines are installed on a steel and concrete floating foundation that is tethered to the ocean floor by a type of anchoring system largely adapted from deepwater oil and gas drilling platforms. As with the fixed platforms, floating ones send the wind energy onshore through undersea cables.

By far the most significant difference is that conventional platforms can be placed in water no more than 200' deep, while floating ones can be installed further offshore in water up to 650', where they aren't visible from shore and the wind is more powerful and constant. This factor has led the Department of Energy to predict that floating platforms will be the "future of offshore wind" technology since about 60% of the best wind energy sources lie in deep water within 50 nautical miles of the U.S. coasts.

Engineering companies, developers and academic institutions, often with the help of federal grants, are actively developing and testing this innovative technology. Trident Winds, Seattle, wants to build a floating wind farm of 100 turbines about 25 miles off the central California coast that it says could power more than 200,000 homes. And, as profiled last week in The New York Times, researchers at the University of Maine are simulating sea and weather conditions for a floating platform that is planned for 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine in about 360' of water.

In Europe, which is far ahead of the U.S. in wind power use thanks to government subsidies, the technology is being tested in Portugal, France and Norway. Statoil, a Norwegian oil and gas company, is close to launching the first commercial-scale floating wind project off the coast of Scotland. Japan is also a big player.

The bottom line for the future will come down to money. Floating platforms require more steel than fixed ones, and longer power cables to bring energy to shore. Turbines risk damage from rough seas and winds. They are more expensive in the short term, which makes power companies reluctant to buy in. This was the case of Principle Power, Emeryville, Calif, which abandoned plans to place five turbines off the Oregon coast using a $47 million federal grant because it couldn't find a commercial buyer for the wind power. The company is now looking at projects in Europe and Asia.

In the long run, however, installation and maintenance costs could be cheaper as floating platforms can be assembled onshore and towed out to sea fully assembled and anchored, and later brought back for maintenance and repairs. This would eliminate the need for specialized vessels and would cut maintenance costs, according to several articles I read.

This got me wondering. What will floating platforms mean for the workboat sector that is already involved in offshore wind construction or in specialized boat building? Floating technology might cause a shift in demand for their services and in the kinds of specialized boats needed. Hopefully these companies are aware and are planning for the future.

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.